Community Lawyering Through an Elder Justice Lens

Community lawyering refers to a wide range of community building and advocacy-related activities through which legal aid advocates contribute their legal knowledge and skills to support community-identified initiatives that return power to the community. [1]

The Elder Abuse Prevention Project of Greater Boston Legal Services (EAPP) has two primary goals: to focus on prevention and to raise the profile of elder abuse. We have identified community-based initiatives as the most effective means to meet both of our goals. After many years of representing elders in the Greater Boston area who have elder abuse issues embedded in their legal problems, we decided to expand our focus to preventative efforts that might help elders avoid being victimized or at least intervene before an issue becomes a crisis. A community lawyering approach has been an effective way to grapple with the often complicated and multi-faceted issue of elder abuse.

We believe that prevention works best when implemented at the community level. This is where potential victims live, work, shop, and receive services. Local “help” entities such as the police, senior centers, adult protective services, district attorney’s office, and legal services, know their communities and have often forged trust relationships with the community and with each other. Ultimately, it is personal trust relationships at the community level which are essential to a successful response to elder abuse. In addition, an effective preventative strategy will be more likely to succeed if it is community members themselves who decide where to focus attention and resources which reflect the needs and interests of the community.

The first community collaboration we started was with the town of Arlington at the end of 2013. Our community lawyering efforts included a combination of community building and community organizing designed to tap into the town’s strengths, skills, talents, resources, and compassion. The Arlington Elder Abuse Task Force was formed in January 2014 with key stakeholders present at the first meeting. One of the first goals was to strengthen the connections between these stakeholders and to develop a “no closed door” policy so that each entity knows exactly what the other entities do, including how to make referrals and how best to collaborate.

Another priority was to establish long and short term goals so the group is always moving forward and turning its shared concerns into collective action. At the first meeting, we set both long and short term goals and then gave everyone in the task force the chance to participate and contribute. The police department drafted the group’s mission statement; the senior center coordinated the first event, a forum on financial exploitation which drew 175 elders. The town nurse, a local elder law attorney, a representative from a local bank, and others went out and recruited “community partners” who received mini-trainings about elder abuse. Other members engaged in community education, outreach, and obtaining media coverage.

What the EAPP brings to the process is our skill set of legal advocacy, policy work, and legislative advocacy. The community task forces have helped us identify legal issues and have provided referrals of elderly clients to our legal practice- clients who are suffering from elder abuse and who face other legal challenges, such as the loss of subsidized housing, loss of or reduction in public benefits, health care benefits issues, and consumer issues.

One of our most important goals is to help ensure that a community group becomes self-sustaining and be capable of setting and attaining its own goals over the long term. In Arlington, there is such a high degree of competency, collegiality, and enthusiasm among the stakeholders that the goal of self-sufficiency was quickly attained. The director and staff at the Arlington Council on Aging were well aware of the prevalence of elder abuse in their town and have been instrumental in hosting and coordinating many of the group’s events. A well informed, active, and committed senior center is a crucial component to a successful community-wide response to elder abuse.

At our first meeting, we declared that our goal was to “stamp out elder abuse in Arlington.” While this may be a lofty goal, with the continuing commitment of everyone in the community, from the task force, to hairdressers, business owners, neighbors, home health aides, town officials, and everyone else who knows and cares about older adults in Arlington, we are definitely moving in the right direction!

[1] Tales, Tools and Transformation: Teaching Community Lawyering; Shari Zimble and Ellen Hemley; http://www.nlada.org/DMS/Documents/1059534642.24/mie-article.pdf

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