How the Justice System Fails (And Could Help) Elders


If you’ve got the sneaking suspicion you’re seeing more and more online and TV ads for reverse mortgages, Snuggies Blankets and tricked out Hoveround scooters, it may be because there are more Americans 65 and older than at any time since the government began tracking population statistics in 1790.

This new geriatric normal is registering as already burdened health and long-term care systems strain to meet the needs of the nation’s 72 million seniors – a sizeable measure of them facing unanticipated financial hardship in the aftermath of the 2008 Banking Collapse.

But daunting as the challenge to adequately care for the increasing influx of aging Boomers is proving to be, there are less obvious but nonetheless disturbing signs medicine and finance are not the only social pillars sagging under the weight of the numbers.

Take the courts. In her article that appeared in Trends in State Courts 2014: Special Focus on Juvenile Justice and Elder Issues (National Center for State Courts) legal research consultant Brenda Uekert notes an increase in median age brings with it a host of negative legal implications – perhaps none more perplexing than the “hidden” problem of elder abuse.

Uekert cites four reasons this shadowy phenomenon remains a challenge particular to the judicial process:

• For every report of elder abuse, an estimated 24 go unreported;

• In most jurisdictions, elder abuse is addressed only as part of another charge;

• The mental capacity of some alleged victims may confound prosecution;

• The majority of perpetrators are family – a dissuading influence on victims.

Uekert offers little solace by way of guardianship practices put in place to protect the interests of elders with diminished capacity, referencing a 2010 Government Accountability Office report excoriating courts for failing to monitor guardians once appointed.

Uekert suggests instead judicial leverage to advance solutions grounded in the “problem-solving” movement typified by drug and mental health courts – specialized “containers” designed to control for additional conditions when meting out legal interventions.

She lists four means to help better inform judicial and public thinking on elder abuse:

• Advance guardianship reform;

• Form local court task forces to gather data on area elder abuse;

• Create and fund elder protection courts;

• Foster court- to community partnerships on guardianship.

It would be unfair and unproductive to saddle the nation’s judicial system with so comprehensive a scourge as the mistreatment of some of our most vulnerable citizens. If we are to develop new visions and strategies worth our efforts, it will be because of multi-disciplinary and multi-communities collaboration.

But along with law enforcement and adult protective services, judges serve as the legal equivalent of first responders against the abuse of our elders. As the ranks of seniors continue to swell, we’ll need them more than ever.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2014

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