January 01, 2015

Philadelphia’s SeniorLAW Center: A Crossroads for Elder Justice in Pennsylvania—An Interview with Executive Director Karen Buck

By Edward W. Madeira Jr., Joseph A. Sullivan

In 1978, 20 years before Tom Brokaw gave us the term “the greatest generation” and the average U.S. life expectancy had risen to 73.5 years, three forward-looking members of the Philadelphia Bar Association established a legal services project named “Senior Citizen Judicare Project” to serve the legal needs of the aging survivors of the “greatest generation.” It was a legal experiment in providing focused services to seniors, long before the field of “elder law” evolved and formal efforts to expose and stop elder abuse became more standard. The idea was to make free legal services available to at least a small segment of low-income seniors in Philadelphia—then and now home to one of the largest and poorest populations in the country.

In fact, Philadelphia has the largest percentage of seniors among the 10 largest cities in the country, and census estimates are that by 2020, one of every four Pennsylvanians will be age 60 or older. (And, by the way, studies project that two-thirds of all children born today can expect to live to 100! Imagine how the population of seniors will also grow.)

The legal experiment began in response to ABA research in the late 1970s showing that seniors were the most underserved population in the country and their needs were not being met by traditional legal aid providers. Launched with a staff of only two, the project grew steadily and has now become an independently funded legal services law firm known as SeniorLAW Center, serving the elderly throughout Pennsylvania with a dedicated staff of 15 and supplemented by volunteer lawyers from the private bar in the Philadelphia region and across the Commonwealth. SeniorLAW Center now serves more than 8,000 Pennsylvanians each year.

Karen Buck has been the executive director of SeniorLAW Center since 1997. Her passionate advocacy for the elderly has inspired support in the funding community and in the public and private bar. In her words:

Seniors are our history as well as our future. Aging is a universal condition. If we live, we will age. Surely, we want to ensure that justice is on hand when we get there.

SeniorLAW provides direct legal representation in Philadelphia and limited representation and advocacy throughout Pennsylvania’s 67 counties by means of the toll-free SeniorLAW HelpLine (1-877-PA SR LAW or 1-877-727-7529). Through the HelpLine, free, confidential civil legal advice and information and referrals are provided to any Pennsylvanian over age 60 regardless of income. Referrals are made to a variety of other nonprofit legal services agencies or resources, as needed, including the Area Agencies on Aging, local bar associations, pro bono programs, and many others.

Telephone inquiries to the statewide HelpLine cover a broad range of legal concerns. Consumer matters such as management of credit card debt amount to about 25 percent of all calls. Disputes with home repair contractors and questions as to potential liability arising from innocently co-signing a loan—such as whether the signing creates responsibility for a grandchild’s car loan—are common. Frequent questions include: What are my rights as a grandparent to seek custody or visitation? My identity was stolen: what can I do? Can my landlord lock me out of my apartment or turn off my heat if he wants me out?

The range of inquiries also includes more traditional elder law issues such as: What is the difference between a will and a living will? Will they take my home if I go into a nursing home or should sign my house over to my children, since I live alone? Others address issues involving family law matters, tax problems, and entitlement to health and other benefits.

The process includes two steps: a legal advocate handles the initial call and elicits the necessary demographic information and the nature of the legal concern. The advocate then arranges a time for a SeniorLAW attorney or pro bono attorney to call the senior citizen and provide individualized legal advice and a referral as appropriate. The great majority of callers do not need legal representation in court or on an ongoing basis; rather they need advice and counsel to guide them through legal decisions. Senior legal helplines are a national model demonstrated to be highly accessible, effective, and cost-efficient, and SeniorLAW Center is proud to be one of the founders and leaders of the National Association of Senior Legal Hotlines.

In the more than 35 years since SeniorLAW was launched, the agency has grown dramatically in the breadth of its services. At the same time, revolutionary advances have been made in efforts to address the needs of aging members in our society. Significant legislative leadership has led to the development of precise nursing home standards and a detailed protocol of patient rights. The Pennsylvania Older Adult Protective Services Act was enacted, requiring specific services for vulnerable and incapacitated persons to help address abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Spousal impoverishment provisions under the Medical Assistance Act were created, as were other statutory safeguards for the elderly. In addition, education and advocacy about the value of end-of-life healthcare directives, commonly called “living wills,” have given individuals more control over their medical treatment at the end of their lives.

SeniorLAW Center continually strives to assess, address, and advocate for the needs of aging Pennsylvanians, not only through legal representation and advice but also through a series of special projects enlisting the private bar, other legal services partners, the network of community agencies for the aging, and the courts. These special projects include:

  • Project S.A.F.E. (Stop Abuse and Financial Exploitation) works to end and prevent various forms of elder abuse and financial exploitation of the elderly through direct services, educational workshops, and professional outreach.
  • Homeowners Assistance Program addresses the needs of low-income elderly homeowners in Philadelphia, enabling them to maintain their homes and age in place in their communities and helping them to lead safe, independent lives, and expand their long-term care options.
  • Fostering Connections to Kinship Care addresses the needs of grandparents and other elders raising young children, many of whom have been abandoned, neglected, or abused.
  • Legal Services for Hispanic Elders provides bilingual, bicultural legal services for Hispanic elders in their own languages and communities.
  • Community-Based Legal Clinics & Neighborhood Legal Services enable SeniorLAW Center to provide legal aid not only by telephone and emergency walk-in intake at center city offices, but also throughout the communities of Philadelphia, through home visits, outreach and special projects at community and senior centers, and at five community-based clinics conducted monthly in diverse neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
  • Protecting Senior Consumers & Tenants addresses a wide range of consumer protection issues facing seniors, including identity theft, abusive debt collection practices, fraud, and housing problems facing senior tenants, including evictions, illegal lockouts, and utility shut-offs, to prevent senior homelessness.
  • Planning to Age with Dignity promotes the independence of seniors and assists with health care and financial decision making and advance planning.
  • Legal Services for Older Veterans offers special services focused on the needs of older veterans, including case management services and financial assistance for homeless veterans or those at risk of homelessness through a partnership with Utility Emergency Services Fund.
  • Enhanced Services Program is SeniorLAW Center’s first earned-income venture offering legal services at affordable rates for underserved older adults of modest means age 55-plus in the five-county Philadelphia region. It focuses on simple advance planning and estate administration. All fees return to SeniorLAW Center to support its free services and programs for low-income seniors.
  • Property and Inheritance Tax Aid for Elders is SeniorLAW Center’s newest program. It addresses the real estate tax foreclosure crisis, tangled title issues, and inheritance tax issues affecting homeownership. It was launched with an ABA Section on Taxation Public Interest Fellowship.

The year 2014 has been designated as the Year of the Veterans, and SeniorLAW Center developed and applied for funding for the “Protecting Older Veterans Who Once Protected Us” project. Modest federal funding was available under the Justice Assistance Grant program focused on responses and prosecution for victims. There were 107 applicants for the $2.8 million available, and SeniorLAW Center was one of only 23 applicants selected for funding. In the words of the executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency: “This speaks to the high quality of the SeniorLAW project.”

Karen spoke with us recently about this remarkable organization.

Q. Why and when did you become involved with SeniorLAW Center, and was there a particular event or client interaction that inspired you to do so?

A. I was honored to be selected to lead this organization after almost a decade in private practice as a litigator. While I had worked as a volunteer with many nonprofits, I was immediately awestruck by the demand for services and the enormous challenges faced by nonprofit legal aid organizations. The most critical issue was finding funding to support our outstanding staff, which, at that time, was still fairly small but extraordinarily talented and committed. It was and is common for our nonprofit attorneys to work as many hours as I did as a law firm litigator but at a fraction of the salary. These are excellent attorneys that could have, and many have, worked at the best firms and corporations in the country. They choose to dedicate their lives to pursuing fairness and access to justice for the poor. It is truly a life choice and a reflection of who you are and what you value.

Q. How did you decide where, and how, to expand services for seniors?

A. The critical issues for seniors are diverse, and I soon realized with education from our Board leaders and colleagues that our focus had to be on the most urgent issues of basic human need: shelter, safety, and sustenance. That means helping the senior who is being beaten by her daughter or caregiver; who is facing a sheriff’s sale or eviction next week; who has no heat, water, or income; or whose bank account is being depleted or has been frozen. One of our advocates who dedicated 25 years of her life to our work has called us a “legal ER for seniors.” This is an apt description for both our extended representation work and a universe of other nonemergency civil legal issues for seniors handled through limited representation.

Q. Are there other specific areas of expansion that meet special needs?

A. As a former ESL (English as a second language) teacher for adult immigrants and refugees, I saw a need to help those with limited English in our diverse immigrant elder communities in Philadelphia. We are proud to be a leader in language access, with materials translated into more than 10 languages. We use professional interpreters, hire multilingual staff who are native speakers, and serve diverse communities in their own languages, providing access to legal services and partnering with neighborhood organizations.

Q. SeniorLAW’s budget is now over $1 million per year and comes from such agencies as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and many law firms and corporations. How did that happen?

A. We have tripled our budget over the last 15 years and continue to grow, or hold steady, despite the recent harsh economic climate. Our focus has been on diversifying streams of revenue—a nonprofit best practice—so that when one funding stream takes a hit, we can endure. We have cultivated new relationships with corporate partners and foundations in other parts of the state and launched projects with city, state, and federal government agencies.

Q. What do you think funders find most appealing?

A. I think our funders believe we are a good investment. We are strategic, lean, and creative. Every dollar is maximized to the greatest extent possible. But the need is immense. We could triple our services and budget again in light of the current legal crisis facing low-income Americans and the startling rise in the numbers of seniors and in senior poverty rates, called by some an “aging tsunami.” Despite the numbers and need, aging issues are still not a priority for most funders, legislators, or leaders. We are working to change that.

Q. Looking ahead, what are the one or two greatest unmet legal needs among low-income seniors?

A. There are two greatest needs in my opinion: housing and elder abuse. Many of us want to “age in place,” but we cannot do that if our place—our home—is uninhabitable due to contractor fraud or negligence, if the deed to our home is fraudulently conveyed, or if we face foreclosure and sheriff’s sale or eviction. Other services to seniors are dependent on safe shelter as a foundation to one’s safety, health, security, and independence.

Elder abuse, including family and caregiver violence and financial exploitation, costs older Americans well over $2.9 billion year and is finally being viewed as a national priority with the passage of the Elder Justice Act, a part of the Affordable Care Act. Even so, less than one percent of the country’s funding for domestic and family violence goes to meet the needs of elder victims. We must do more and we are proud to make elder justice a priority of our work at SeniorLAW Center.

Q. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has convened an Elder Law Task Force to which you were appointed. You have played a significant role. How would you describe the experience of serving on that task force?

A. Serving on the Task Force under the stellar leadership of Justice Debra Todd has been one of the highlights of my career. The 38 members of the Task Force include outstanding judges, district attorneys, and members of the private bar from across the Commonwealth. I am also proud to bring the perspective of the civil legal aid community to the discussion as one of the few advocates on the Task Force focusing on low-income elders. The staff of the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) has been instrumental. On November 17, 2014, Justice Todd led a news conference releasing the Task Force report and its anticipated strategic and bold recommendations for action. [The report is available at http://www.pacourts.us/courts/supreme-court/committees/supreme-court-boards/elder-law-task-force.]

Q. I understand you also know the work of Judge Patricia Banks, the presiding judge of the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court’s Elder Law and Miscellaneous Remedies Division, who is also involved in an array of judicial and legal programs for elders. Is that correct?

A. Oh, yes. Our Task Force has spent substantial time learning about, and being inspired by, initiatives in Cook County led by Judge Banks. She understands judicial leadership in its best sense, in which judges inspire all participants to collaborate in tackling complex problems with legal and social components, and elder abuse is one of the major issues of our times. Judge Banks has been in the forefront; she has certainly inspired me, and we hope to have the opportunity to see her best practices in person as potential models for us in Pennsylvania.

Q. Does all the work, and the significant expansion of services you have achieved through SeniorLAW, give you hope that there will be new resources and new energy devoted to addressing the legal needs of low-income Pennsylvanians in the coming years?

A. I am always optimistic, but new attention and resources must be devoted to elder justice and elder care here in Pennsylvania and throughout the country. The sheer numbers mandate it. But so does our most basic sense of justice. While we spend a lot of time talking about the problems and challenges of older Americans we serve, I would like to close by emphasizing the enormous contributions seniors have made throughout their lives. They are often called “the greatest generation” for a reason. They blazed trails for all of us and fought the battles abroad for freedom we often take for granted and the battles at home for civil rights, voting rights, and equality. They raised us, mentored us, survived devastation and the Great Depression, sacrificed, and endured. We stand on their shoulders. We have a vital, if not sacred, obligation to do right by them now.

Edward W. Madeira Jr.

Edward W. Madeira Jr. is chair emeritus and senior counsel at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia. Long active in efforts to improve the justice system and address the court funding crisis, Madeira is known, in part, for his work on behalf of the ABA’s Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System, Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, and Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements.

Joseph A. Sullivan