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May 01, 2014

How a Commission on Law and Aging Study Led to ABA Policy on Court-Focused Elder Abuse Initiatives

Lori A. Stiegel

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: BIFOCAL Vol. 35, Issue 5.)

In August 2012, the ABA House of Delegates adopted a policy sponsored by the Commission on Law and Aging and co-sponsored by the Senior Lawyers Division, among others. The policy:

  • Urges state, territorial, tribal, and local courts and community organizations to collaborate in establishing court-focused elder abuse initiatives that serve victims or potential victims of elder abuse through either a court or a court-based program or a program conducted in partnership with a court;
  • Urges such court-focused elder abuse initiatives to, as appropriate for each initiative and each jurisdiction, implement the following principles:
    • Foster improved handling of elder abuse cases by the court and justice system;
    • Have a positive impact on victims;
    • Strengthen intra-court coordination of cases involving elder abuse;
    • Be vigilant in assessing and addressing conflicts of interest and other ethical issues;
    • Foster judicial leadership in the community’s response to elder abuse;
    • Create professional and public awareness of the initiative’s services and of elder abuse; and
    • Strive to institutionalize the initiative within the court or community organization.
  • Urges all courts and community organizations involved in court-focused elder abuse initiatives to develop comprehensive plans for collecting data for purposes of program administration and evaluation.

This policy augments ABA support for efforts to enhance access to justice for victims of elder abuse. The policy was needed because the older adult population is expanding and the incidence of elder abuse is growing with it. Public and professional awareness efforts that may uncover more incidents are developing rapidly. Simultaneously, state legislative action, training initiatives, and recognition of the value of legal remedies are increasing the number of cases involving elder abuse heard by state courts. These factors are motivating state courts to improve the response of the civil and criminal justice systems to victims and witnesses in elder abuse cases.

The policy was informed by research conducted by the ABA Commission on Law and Aging and the University of Kentucky College of Public Health Graduate Center for Gerontology with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

The researchers assessed the five court-focused elder abuse initiatives that existed when the project began in 2007.

Alameda County, California
The Elder Protection Court (EPC) is a special civil and criminal docket for elder abuse cases, including elder abuse protection order cases, in the Superior Court of Alameda County, California. Akin to the family violence coordinating councils that many courts lead, the EPC convenes and leads an Elder Access Committee, drawing together representatives of various agencies and disciplines concerned about elder abuse. The committee meets quarterly over lunchtime at the courthouse, providing opportunities for discussion about challenges, resources, training opportunities, collaboration, and more.

Jefferson County, Kentucky
The In-Home Emergency Protective Order Initiative (IEPOI) in Jefferson County, Kentucky, helps medically fragile/homebound victims of abuse age 60 and older obtain emergency protective orders and longer-term domestic violence orders by telephone without having to leave their homes. The initiative is a partnership of several agencies: ElderServe Inc., a nonprofit provider of aging services that administers the initiative; the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office; the Family Court; the County’s Adult Protective Services Office, and the Sheriff’s Office.

Hillsborough County, Florida
The Elder Justice Center (EJC) in Hillsborough County, Florida, is a program of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court that provides residents age 60 and older with assistance—but not legal advice—in completing court documents such as applications for protective orders, referrals to legal and social services programs in the community, and case management services in guardianship matters. The EJC staff monitors guardianship cases. They also act as advocates for older crime victims and, if the victim desires, can help older criminal defendants by providing referrals to diversionary programs such as mental health or substance abuse treatment programs.

Palm Beach County, Florida
The Elder Justice Center (EJC) in Palm Beach County, Florida, is a program of the Board of County Commissioners and is housed in the main courthouse of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court. The EJC helps residents age 60 and older who are arrested for certain crimes or who are involved in guardianship proceedings or other court-related matters.

The program provides assistance—but not legal advice—in completing court forms such as applications for protective orders, guardianship investigations or monitoring upon request of the probate judge, referrals to legal and social services programs in the community, and accompaniment to civil and criminal hearings. In certain criminal cases, the EJC identifies older criminal defendants who may have dementia or other cognitive problems and provides information to the court to help it determine whether those defendants should be diverted from jail into mental health or substance abuse treatment programs.

Kings County, New York

The Elder Temporary Order of Protection Initiative (ETOP) in Kings County, New York, is sponsored by the New York City Family Justice Center in Brooklyn. The initiative assists eligible victims of domestic violence who are age 60 or older and unable to travel and appear in court personally or for whom it is a great hardship due to infirmity or disability in obtaining temporary orders of protection.

Social workers and lawyers from the New York City Department for the Aging and the Jewish Association Serving the Aging Legal/Social Work Elder Abuse Program are available to provide emergency counseling, direct services, and other information regarding services for the elderly. The Family Court and its Clerk’s Office also play significant roles in the initiative.

Findings from Our Research
The researchers interviewed 92 key stakeholders—89 professionals and three victims—using six standardized data-collection instruments. We reviewed 68 court case files that had been closed during a common one-year period (June 1, 2007, to May 30, 2008). In Alameda County, we also observed EPC proceedings.

Data collected demonstrate that, overall, the initiatives foster:

  • Greater access to justice and better court outcomes for victims because of court accommodations, increased knowledge about elder abuse among judges and other professionals, and provision of emotional support during the court process;
  • Efforts that help enhance victim safety, prevent further abuse, and also facilitate prosecution, such as monitoring of guardianship cases for abuse, helping older persons (homebound or not) obtain orders of protection, and referring or linking victims to other services;
  • Improved linkages between the courts, prosecutors, law enforcement, and other service providers that help those entities to better handle their elder abuse cases and ensure that victims are referred to other services that may prevent future court cases;
  • More efficient handling of and fewer delays in elder abuse cases; and
  • Enhanced professional and public awareness of the problem of elder abuse.

The researchers also found that significant weaknesses in data collection and the resulting lack of evaluation posed real challenges to efforts to continue the existing initiatives and to replicate them in other communities. Policymakers and funders increasingly demand evidence that programs work and that money will be well invested. New programs face great risk if they are unable to provide such evidence or demonstrate that they will provide data for an evaluation of outcomes, that is, of impact on older persons, the court, or other stakeholders. Evaluation of outcomes is more difficult, but also more meaningful, than measurement of “outputs,” such as number of people served.

Conclusions and Recommendations
The assessment of the five court-focused initiatives conducted by the Commission and the University of Kentucky revealed that the initiatives are conducting important and cutting-edge work to improve the response of the judicial system to elder abuse victims and, in one community, to older criminal defendants with mental impairments. Stakeholders expressed strong beliefs that the initiatives improve handling of elder abuse cases and enhance the response to elder abuse by the judicial system while having either a positive or neutral impact on their own agencies. Victims and the professionals serving them indicated that they have a more positive interface with each other and with the system. Stakeholders agreed that the initiatives project a positive image of the courts to the public—especially important in an era of service scrutiny and fiscal challenges.

Additional court-focused elder abuse initiatives have been developed since the Commission’s research project commenced. These include the Elder Protection Court of the Superior Court of Contra Costa County, California; the Senior Court program of the Probate Court of Trumbull County, Ohio; and the Elder Law and Miscellaneous Remedies Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois (described [in Experience Vol. 24, No. 1, 2014 and] in Experience Vol. 22, No. 2, 2012 by Presiding Judge Patricia Banks).

Judges, court administrators, service providers, policymakers, and funders in other communities should give serious consideration to supporting implementation of similar efforts, even in these times of limited resources. The five initiatives already demonstrate that these endeavors can be conducted successfully with limited financial support, although it is obvious that they could accomplish much more if they had adequate funding.

Efforts to replicate or build upon any of these initiatives should plan for data collection and evaluation from day one; opportunities will be lost if assessment is an afterthought. Work backwards: think about what might be needed to demonstrate the value of the initiative and then determine whether current data collection practices enable future evaluation. If they do not, discuss which practices can and should be changed. Consider partnering with universities. Professors and doctoral or masters’ degree students in fields such as criminal justice or gerontology could be eager to participate in planning for and conducting evaluations of new initiatives and to develop expertise that is of particular interest to funders, policymakers, and program administrators. ■

Lori A. Stiegel

About the Authors: Lori A. Stiegel is a Senior Attorney at the American Bar Association's Commission on Law and Aging in Washington, DC.

The research project described in this article was supported by Award No. 2007-IJ-CX-0107 from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Justice Department.

This piece was originally published in Experience, Volume 24, Number 1, 2014. © 2014 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.