Aligning Efforts to Address Elder Abuse in Maine

With Foundation support, a new initiative is taking shape to coordinate and strengthen statewide efforts to protect seniors from abuse and exploitation

At the first meeting of Maine’s Elder Justice Coordinating Partnership in September, Legal Services for the Elderly Executive Director and John T. Gorman Fellow Jaye Martin told heartbreaking stories of the elder abuse and financial exploitation victims her organization serves.

Seniors barricading themselves in their rooms at night to keep out predatory family members. A caregiver using a senior’s health event as leverage to control and steal assets. An elderly couple being coerced to sign their home over to a relative, who then evicts them.

“After 15 years, I don’t fail to be angered and horrified by every case I see,” said Martin, who co-chairs the Partnership with Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw.

Administrator Shaw is no stranger herself to these kinds of stories or the anger they spur. “As is the case for so many of the members of the Partnership, my passion for addressing elder abuse is born from my life as a public servant who has witnessed the devastating results of elder abuse and financial exploitation in Maine,” she said.  “The time to come together for the protection of Maine seniors is now.”

With support from the John T. Gorman Foundation, such a convening has now formed around an important objective: paving the way for elder abuse’s steady decline in Maine.

Elder Abuse A Major Threat to Aging in Place

Elder abuse remains a major threat to Maine seniors’ ability to age safely and independently in their communities. A 2017 study by the Muskie School of Public Policy estimated that, between 2009 and 2016, Maine’s older adults lost as much as $451 million to financial exploitation. Harder to tabulate is the emotional and physical toll inflicted upon Maine’s elders, but studies have shown that the victims of this kind of abuse and neglect face considerably higher chances of premature death. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators are close family members, most often the victim’s child.

“When I joined Legal Services for the Elderly in 2006, I had never heard of elder abuse,” Martin said. “What an eye opener. Now, half of the cases of the attorneys in our firm involve elder abuse. That amounts to hundreds of cases a year and that’s the people who find their way to us for help.”

To advance its priority of enabling seniors to age safely in their communities, the Foundation has long supported Legal Services for the Elderly’s work to offer free legal assistance to low-income seniors. Since 2013, they have focused intensively on elder abuse. The organization has run public awareness campaigns, provided legal assistance to victims, and has worked to proactively identify those who may need assistance. The efforts have greatly increased the number of elder abuse victims they have helped.

Much as it has for other victims of domestic violence, Martin said the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dangerous for many seniors. “It intensifies the setup for them to be isolated and victimized,” Martin said. Staying at home to prevent exposure to the disease, seniors have less access to outside support and become more dependent on abusers. At the same time, caregivers and family members may be experiencing economic impacts of the pandemic, making it more tempting to take advantage of vulnerable older family members.

A Roadmap to Elder Abuse’s Decline

The seriousness of the moment adds urgency to the Elder Justice Coordinating Partnership, a new statewide initiative to align and improve statewide efforts to prevent and address elder abuse.

“When it comes to this issue, evidence shows that only multidisciplinary efforts will work to make a large-scale impact. No one profession will make a difference,” Martin said. Many agencies and organizations in Maine are doing good work to protect seniors from abuse. What is missing, however, is a statewide strategy to coordinate their efforts and fill gaps.

At the urging of Martin and other advocates, Governor Janet Mills signed an executive order in 2019 with the goal of creating such a strategy. With members appointed from her Administration as well private organizations, the Elder Justice Coordinating Partnership’s mission is to create an Elder Justice Roadmap by December 2021. The document will outline current challenges to preventing, detecting and responding to elder abuse; coordinate priorities among the public and private sectors; and make recommendations for future steps.

The 22-member Partnership includes representatives from non-profit senior service providers, sexual assault and domestic violence groups, nine state agencies, and law enforcement. The John T. Gorman Foundation has provided a grant so consultants can assist the group with data collection, analysis, and facilitation – freeing up members to actively focus on the decision-making process.

The group will meet eight times over the next year (a schedule is online and meetings will be broadcast on the Partnership’s Facebook page). The first step in the group’s process is to complete a survey of each member’s organization to assess currently available resources as well as critical challenges and needs in four key areas: direct victim services, public and professional education, public policy, and data collection/evaluation. Once presented with the survey’s finding, the group will set priorities for each area and present the report to the Governor.

In the group’s first meeting, Martin said all the members were clear both in their personal commitment to the issue, as well as their desire to produce actionable steps that can be implemented and, ultimately, dramatically reduce the number of seniors who are suffering from abuse and exploitation.

“Elder abuse has got to stop and we can stop it. I truly believe that. But we can only do that by planning and working together and committing to carrying out the plan,” Martin said. “Imagine a future – elder abuse on a continuous steady decline across the state. Victims getting help earlier and getting access to a coordinated multi-disciplinary response. And perpetrators understanding there will be absolutely no tolerance for elder abuse in Maine. That will be our future.”