Since 2008, Elder Court has addressed cases involving harm to seniors, including physical, emotional, and financial abuse. One judge oversees the entire process, hearing all criminal and civil cases and recommending appropriate social services for senior plaintiffs.
Many seniors are isolated and physically frail, and some have mental impairments. Unfortunately, these same infirmities make them more vulnerable to abuse—physical, emotional, and financial. However, seniors suffering from abuse may not be aware that legal remedies and social services are available to them. To provide access to these resources, and to help address the special needs of the seniorpopulation, the Superior Court of Contra Costa County created Elder Court in 2008.
Elder Court is held every Tuesday in the late morning, and the docket includes every case that involves elder abuse. Just one judge—Joyce M. Cram—oversees the entire legal process. A senior peer counselor gives emotional support to each senior before the hearing, and experienced attorneys offer free legal advice to indigent seniors. The courtroom is equipped with a wheelchair, assistive listening devices, eyeglasses, and a document magnifier.
In addition to any legal action, Judge Cram may recommend certain social services for a senior. The special needs of the individual are carefully considered in each case. For example, if abuse is occurring in an elder’s family, the judge might assign a mediator to help the family resolve disputes. Senior peer counselors will visit the elder to provide additional support, if needed.
Before 2008, numerous government agencies and nonprofit organizations offered services to elders, but there was very little communication or coordination among them. Under the leadership of Judge Cram, the Contra Costa County court created a task force to investigate how best to coordinate these services and create a legal framework that could better serve the senior population. The task force organized roundtable discussions and other meetings among the service agencies. As a result of these discussions, the agencies agreed on ways to coordinate their efforts to serve the senior population under the leadership of the court. With input from these partners and recommendations from the task force, Elder Court was created and began hearing cases in November 2008.
Elder Court now partners with several organizations that provide services to elders who have filed a legal complaint. For example, the Center for Human Development offers mediation services to seniors who are in conflict with family members or care providers. Contra Costa Health Services offers senior peer counseling to support and prepare elders before a court hearing.
With the assistance of its agency partners, the court is reaching out to the elder community. The outreach program gives presentations at senior centers, elder conferences, and other community events. The court also distributes brochures describing Elder Court and its supporting partners to all agencies with an interest in elder affairs. These education and outreach events are well attended, and as a result the number of cases being heard in Elder Court has been steadily increasing. At the same time, increasing numbers of seniors have been using the services of the supporting agencies.
To replicate this program, Magda Lopez, director of court programs and services for the Contra Costa County court, suggests that the effort be spearheaded by a judge willing to initiate the program and hear the cases. Court managers will need to help implement the program and train staff. The Contra Costa court is willing to act as a mentor. The Elder Court program was instituted and continues to operate with existing court resources. And because most of the partner agencies rely on volunteers to staff their programs, the coordinated effort has required very little additional funding.
Other courts have already taken note of the success of Elder Court.The Superior Court of Ventura County’s Elder Court is based on the Contra Costa court’s model. Judge Cram has attended roundtable discussions in Northern and Southern California and has consulted with courts in Chicago and Buffalo, New York.
In addition to providing legal remedies for plaintiffs, Elder Court coordinates the efforts of organizations that offer services to seniors. These services can include peer counselors, legal self-help clinics, and mediation between elders and family members.
• Enables rapid resolution of cases
• Offers seniors assistance with legal matters
• Enables coordinated, ongoing, individualized support from social service organizations
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Director of Court Programs and Services