Saturday, July 10, 2010

How I Spent My Vacation

No, don’t panic. Summer’s not over yet. The vacation I’m referring to is my extended hiatus from posting. My excuse is that I‘ve been hard at work helping to launch the California Elder Justice Workgroup (CEJW), a mammoth and exciting undertaking.

It started with a few of us who are involved in projects funded by the Archstone Foundation as part of its Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative (EANI). In the hope of stirring up synergy, Archstone brings together EANI project personnel at “convenings,” day-and-a-half sessions three times a year; it was at a convening that we started talking about how many of the day-to-day headaches we faced in our work were tied to big-picture, systemic problems. Those of us working on grants to train mandated reporters in their reporting duties, for example, couldn’t get the agencies charged with investigating to agree on such basics as what’s reportable, who investigates, and which clients are eligible for protective services. Multidisciplinary teams weren’t clear about what information they could share and what they can protect. The obstacles went on and on. So we started a list.

Woody Allen’s oft-quoted line "Eighty percent of success is showing up” clearly applies to advocacy work, and members of our group continued to show up for monthly telephone meetings to add to our list and flesh out the issues. The other thing our group had going for it was members’ deep roots in key stakeholder networks, planning skills, and a penchant for identifying opportunities. Our gripe list started to turn into a plan. We got an enormous boost last October when Archstone awarded us an 18-month grant to host a  summit and enlist the help of others in developing a blueprint. 

The summit took place on April 29-30 in San Francisco, with 92 researchers, advocates, practitioners, court personnel, legal professionals, experts in nursing home reform, and many more. After plenary sessions by Bill Benson, who provided an update on the newly passed Elder Justice Act, and Daniel Marson, who described his work in legal decision-making capacity, an issue at the heart of many of the problems we’d identified, delegates broke into four groups for focused presentations and discussions:
  •       A Reporting and Response group began with a presentation on structured assessment, an approach designed to improve consistency in assessing abuse referrals that’s being tested in Riverside County. The group also discussed barriers to reporting abuse in long term care (LTC) facilities, some of which stem from the fact that California is one of a handful of states that charge Ombudsmen with investigating cases reported under mandatory reporting laws on top of their federal mandate to advocate on patients’ behalf. The problem is balancing the roles of patient advocate and objective finder-of-fact. Some of the reporting issues they discussed aren’t unique to California—e.g. the need for guidance in handling cases involving “unbefriended” or “unrepresented” residents (those who lack legal decision-making capacity, responsible parties, or surrogates). 
  •             The Justice System group explored the need for greater coordination among the branches of the legal system that have a role in abuse prevention. Retired judge Julie Conger led off by describing Alameda County’s “elder court,” which she started. Afterwards, the group, which included legal professionals involved in criminal, probate, and family law;  representatives from the Archstone-supported elder forensics centers; private and legal aid attorneys, and the Administrative Offices of the courts, identified the need for training to legal professionals, public education on legal issues, forensics expertise, and policy reform.  
  •       The “Safeguarding the Long Term Care (LTC) Safety Net” group focused on bridging the chasm between the elder abuse and LTC networks, the latter of which includes family caregiver and dementia care programs, mental health service providers, and advocates for adults with disabilities. The importance of the LTC network in reducing vulnerability to elder abuse has come into sharp relief in light of the draconian cuts to basic services we’ve witnessed in recent months. The group recommended adding elder abuse risk factors to screening tools used by LTC programs and promoting interdisciplinary education by academic institutions. Also discussed were ways to keep dangerous people out of the LTC workforce though better screening, training, and workforce development.
  •            And finally, the Financial Abuse and Exploitation discussed the rising tide and devastating impact of such high impact crimes as mass marketing fraud and predatory lending. A primary focus was on the need for more precise instruments to measure financial deficits that heighten vulnerability to exploitation and the critical need for legal and mental health services for victims. Promising preventative approaches discussed included simple policies that senior centers can adopt to block fraudsters and unscrupulous vendors who pose as objective financial advisors from gaining access to participants. Group members also agreed to explore ways to achieve greater parity for seniors by mental health and victim service programs, which have historically prioritized other populations.
Assistant Secretary of Aging Kathy Greenlee joined us on the second day with an update on the Administration on Aging’s plans and took questions and recommendations about the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. Perhaps the highlight of the event was a “commitment ceremony” where small groups reported on their findings and delegates committed to follow-up action. We’re still in the process of sifting through the commitments, which range from hammering out protocols for reporting, developing reference materials on alternatives to conservatorship (California’s term for adult guardianships), exploring universal assessment tools for aging programs that include elder abuse risk factors, designing forensics centers that focus on abuse in LTC and financial exploitation, to tweeting about abuse.

CEJW is benefiting from the wisdom and support of non-California friends and allies. A partner and inspiration is the Vulnerable Adult Justice Project (VAJP), a coalition in Minnesota directed by Iris Freeman and housed at the William Mitchell Law School, which is about a year ahead of us in getting started. We’re also in the process of assembling a “technical advisory group” of experts in a wide range of fields. 

As long as I'm pushing the seasons here, I'll end with a resolution: To resume posting and provide regular updates on CEJW's work. You can also learn more by visiting our wiki site  at