An Elder Justice Coordinator Thinks About Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation

A gavel laying on papers

by Ellen Cheek, Staff Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline

A gavel laying on papersWhen Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs received a Phase II Model Approaches Grant, the position of “Elder Justice Coordinator”(EJC) was created with the goal of determining the role Legal Services programs should play in preventing and addressing elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. When I became the designated EJC, it seemed that my more than decade-long experience as a staff attorney on the statewide Florida Senior Legal Helpline would stand me in good stead. Florida is a large and especially diverse state with significant numbers of seniors of every socio-economic level and I had counseled literally thousands of clients from almost every one of the state’s 67 counties. I was aware of effective referrals in some cases and disappointing outcomes in others, of apparently successful initiatives by non-lawyer groups as well as good ideas and collaborative efforts which were ultimately unsustainable. How has this experience informed my thinking about creative, non-duplicative, coordinated and meaningful responses to abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable seniors? What do I hope to share with other civil legal services advocates at the upcoming Elder Justice Conference? Most basically, in the absence of a simple, workable definition for elder abuse, neglect and exploitation (and there really doesn’t seem to be one), I offer the following framework for discussion:

  • Statutory definitions which define the requirements for intervention by state adult protective services (APS) agencies and/or criminal prosecution are extremely valuable but address only a fraction of the cases for which advocates seek remedies.
  • Statutes which define abuse, neglect and exploitation solely by chronological age are unrealistic and arguably ageist.
  • There are remedies and resolutions (existing and yet to be created!) in addition to criminal or civil prosecution and/or APS intervention. It is imperative to be aware of those and find resources in all communities.

With these broad concepts in mind, concerned advocates can gather and discuss the specific factors which characterize abusive and exploitative situations. Panelists will discuss how the issue presents so that advocates can recognize the legal issue embedded in certain problems (benefit denials, housing troubles, etc.), what risk factors are common to victims, as well as factors common to perpetrators, and the scams which are targeted specifically at seniors as seniors.

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