The Benefits of Community—How Senior Legal Helplines Facilitated the Passage of Landmark Legislation to Protect Vulnerable Adults  

The Benefits of Community—How Senior Legal Helplines Facilitated the Passage of Landmark Legislation to Protect Vulnerable Adults  

By Ellen Cheek, Attorney, Elder Justice Coordinator, Florida Senior Legal Helpline   

 

Florida Senior Legal Helpline 

 Thanks to technical support from the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy (CERA), senior legal helpline managers and attorneys have had a forum to “meet” and communicate which has served us very well. Attorneys share equipment questions and best practices for providing legal advice to seniors on the telephone. We also discuss common substantive issues and brainstorm solutions. An ongoing focus has been elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.   

One of the biggest problems with elder financial exploitation is that by the time a court considers the exploitation, the vulnerable adult’s assets – and often the exploiter – have already disappeared. This is especially devastating to a senior, whose advanced age and/or health problems often make it impossible to help them find a legal remedy to recover their assets. Our Helpline colleague from West Virginia, Attorney Cat McConnell, had an innovative approach to this problem which she presented at the National Aging & Law Conference in October 2016.

After hearing Ms. McConnell explain her state’s proposed version of a fast track, temporary injunction to protect the assets of an exploitation victim from being dissipated before a court could consider the larger issues, I followed up with her for details. Although the West Virginia bill is not yet law, the input about her experience, including the proposal’s particulars as well as the stakeholders with whom she collaborated, proved invaluable.     

Inspired by the West Virginia effort, I took the concept to the Legislative Committee of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar. That committee drafted a Florida version of the proposal, found sponsors in both houses of Florida’s bicameral legislature, and filed the bill in December 2017. A tremendous education effort by members of the Florida Bar followed as the bill was shepherded through a variety of committees in both chambers. On March 23, 2018, Governor Scott signed the bill, providing a unique and totally Florida remedy and the first of its kind in the nation. Because of this new law, a vulnerable adult who has been financially exploited or is at risk of being so can get an ex parte protective order, pro se and without fee, which permits a temporary freeze of assets. With an effective date of July 1, 2018, forms are being developed by the Florida Supreme Court and training is underway for many constituencies including Legal Services lawyers, the private bar, judges, clerks and court administration, as well as the protective services network of investigators and social workers.   

Helplines are not only a cost-effective way to deliver legal services in financially challenging times; they also provide a view into a wide variety of issues because of the volume of clients they serve. The Florida statute exemplifies the innovation which is possible when similarly situated colleagues have a forum to share their issues and their ideas for resolution. CERA focuses on legal services for seniors, but the collaborative model which CERA has supported is being replicated across the nation for many different interest groups – such as low-income veterans and pensioners, to name a few. I’m grateful to be a member of OUR group, for the relationships we’ve developed, and for the opportunity to continue and foster those relationships through our membership in the National Association of Senior Legal Hotlines.