How Martin Luther King Jr. helps me understand the meaning of (elder) justice

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice” Martin Luther King Jr.

It has taken me years to begin to understand the meaning of “justice” — even after my father was tried and convicted of abusing his mother, after I intervened.

Dr. King’s actions and words help us recognize the importance of justice in “elder justice” — and in all arenas of society. Now, we must understand the greater meaning of “elder justice.”

Join me on Thursday, January 18, 2018 when I offer a webinar, The Brooke Astor Story: Hard-learned lessons that address elder abuse and financial exploitation with Justice Clearinghouse, @justicechannel, to further explore aspects of elder justice in the broader context of justice.

The Martin Luther King Mural, created to memorialize a rally held by Reverend King in 1965. Lancaster Avenue and 40th Street, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Philip C. Marshall, January 17, 2017.

Criminal acts

My grandmother —New York City philanthropist, Brooke Astor— was a victim of elder abuse by her son, my father.

While in the throes of Alzheimer’s my grandmother was poly-victimized (enduring more than one form of abuse) with forms, frequency, and duration of abuse enhanced and escalated — all as part of a calculated “scheme to defraud,” as characterized by the Manhattan District Attorney during my father’s six-month criminal trial and conviction.

To help save my grandmother, I filed a guardianship petition (which was awarded to her close friend and a bank). I had little recourse, for my father was using his agency as her power of attorney as a weapon and a shield — to steal millions of dollars my grandmother had directed to charities.

In petitioning the court, it was my hope that this “family affair” would be quietly settled.

For my victimized grandmother and millions of other seniors, elder abuse is not a “family affair” nor a “civil” matter. Elder abuse is a crime and needs to be treated as such:

  1. so victims and their supporters are not re-victimized,
  2. so perpetrators are held accountable,
  3. so victims (primary and secondary) can find safety and heal,
  4. so each of us will report abuse, confident that,
  5. when we act, public safety and justice professionals will have our back.

It is our obligation to report or refer. To be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse.

In Dr. King’s words,

“Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

Our silence protects perpetrators, not their victims.

Unfortunately, elder abuse, though widespread, is unreported. Actual exploitation is 23 times greater for elder abuse, and 43 times greater for elder financial exploitation, than reported numbers imply. (Under the Radar, 2011)

Elder abuse: misunderstood, then tried

We were catapulted from case to cause by one statement from the guardianship judge, written three years before my father’s trial.

We had saved my grandmother. Her abuse was stopped. She was safe, back in her country house where she wished to spend her last days.

But, after an out-of-court settlement in which I was identified as “the prevailing party,” the guardianship judge declared, with reference to the Marshalls (my father and his wife),

“…allegations of intentional elder abuse by the Marshalls, were not substantiated.”

“Astor son is cleared”, headlined The New York Times.

On the dark December day of this declaration, our Pyrrhic victory found us losing the greater war against elder abuse. Was my grandmother’s guardianship to be elder justice’s Plessey v Ferguson? Was it now open season on seniors? Were we to repurpose the family’s dirty laundry as surrender flags, giving up on the greater cause in to which we had been so thrust? No.

Just as my father declared that he had been vindicated, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office expanded its work, empanelled a grand jury, and issued subpoenas.

We slowly advanced from tribulation to trial. From the tribulation of hearing the allegations in my petition for guardianship were “unsubstantiated,” to a criminal trial that proved otherwise.

If I could do it over again, I would have called the Manhattan DA immediately. I remain grateful to Liz Loewy — at the time, lead prosecutor of the elder-abuse unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

As we entered the criminal justice system Liz coupled compassion with Kleenex, helping us to find our voice and tell our story — allowing us to advance from taking a stand, and helping my grandmother, to taking the stand, in criminal court, for the greater cause of elder justice.

The jury’s verdict: My father was found guilty on 14 of the 15 counts against him. After a spring and long, long summer of my father’s trail and after heart-wrenching testimony, this was a very bittersweet harvest. Yet, this harvest has so nourished the cause of elder justice. Save one, all counts were upheld upon appeal.

As a side note, it has been repeatedly reported that (1) this was a family feud among the rich and famous, and (2) that I “sued” my father. Both are incorrect.

  1. Elder abuse does not discriminate. Elder abuse is a problem that affects every community and cuts across all race, religion, culture, income, and political lines.
  2. This inaccurate portrayal of my guardianship petition does little to inform the public of options available should they seek to help others or themselves.

Discovering justice

When my petition for guardianship was granted, I did not achieve justice: I helped my grandmother and those trying to helping her. I only achieved elder justice when I, and seventy other witnesses, helped bring my grandmother’s perpetrators — my father, included — to justice.

In so doing, I better understand Reverend King’s claim that,

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice”

Elder justice

When people ask me what I am doing, I reply, “I am a survivor and an elder-justice advocate,” at which point many beg for an explanation. It might be more expeditious if I replied, “I am fighting against elder abuse.” But, when taking the long view, negative campaigns may be short sighted and reactive — over proactive, preventive achievements. This is why it is so important that the Elder Justice Act (2009) is called just that. And that the recently enacted Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (Congress S.178) messages a proactive approach and response.

At its heart, the term “elder justice” is so important because it underscores the vital role justice plays in realizing our social compact between society and seniors (including our future self).

Yet, there is no consistent definition of “elder justice,” or “elder abuse,” or many other terms. As observed by Laura Carstensen @LongevityCenter, we are even in search of a word for “seniors” that won’t offend “old” people (2017). Terminology (CDC 2016) must be developed to inform messaging (Frameworks Institute), research, sharing (here, financial: Santucci 2017), and practice.

One definition is found in the Elder Justice Act (2010),

(6) ELDER JUSTICE - The term `elder justice’ means — 
 (A) from a societal perspective, efforts to — 
 `(i) prevent, detect, treat, intervene in, and prosecute elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation; and
 `(ii) protect elders with diminished capacity while maximizing their autonomy; and
 (B) from an individual perspective, the recognition of an elder’s rights, including the right to be free of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Elder justice is in its infancy compared to other movements that define our social, legal, and moral obligations: justice for victims of sexual assault and survivors of domestic violence, for example. Justice is not about just one cause or just another.

At this formative stage, elder justice demands a formative assessment. This assessment must include our broader relationship with justice to understand how elder justice can help complete, not compete with, other causes — mindful of philosopher Hegel’s account (paraphrased) of Greek tragedy that,

“The conflict is not between good and evil but between goods that are each making too exclusive a claim.”

Elder abuse is a pervasive, profound, and systemic problem. It is best addressed though a systems-based approach to understand better our elder-justice universe, its constellations, the alignment of its shining stars, and the forces that draw them together or keep them apart.

This systems-based analysis is both bottom-up, starting with a person-centered approach, and top-down, with leadership engaging all sectors in what Edwin Walker (of the Administration for Community Living) describes as a, “comprehensive national framework.”

The Department of Justice has taken a leadership role in development of the Elder Justice Initiative, whose mission is,

“…to support and coordinate the Department’s enforcement and programmatic efforts to combat elder abuse, neglect and financial fraud and scams that target our nation’s seniors.”

To realize elder justice we must delve deep into facets of our justice system and continue conversations with practitioners, victims, seniors and their circle of support, and communities countrywide .

Elder justice, expanded

It is understandable that elder justice’s pointed focus has been seniors at risk, those allegedly and actually abused, and society’s preventive efforts and response to abuse. Elder abuse is an epidemic.

  • “One in 10 respondents reported emotional, physical, or sexual mistreatment or potential neglect in the past year,” based on analysis by Acierno and colleages (2010) informed by the The National Elder Mistreatment Study (2009).
  • “More than two out of five…of older Americans exhibit one or more of the warning signs of current financial victimization,” as recorded by a survey conducted for Investor Protection Trust (2016).

Such a limited understanding of “elder justice” falls short. In so doing, it shorts seniors and society.

  • Without careful messaging (Frameworks Institute) it may inadvertently normalize abuse and further stigmatize seniors, already impeded by our ageist attitudes.
  • It does not take a strengths-based approach to seniors, their circles of support, and communities.
  • It excludes a sizable segment of the population.
  • It impedes research and practice toward education and prevention, screening and detection, intervention and justice, and advocacy in all forms of justice.

In expanding our understanding of elder justice, we can increase the potential for collaborative engagement with other justice and public safety professionals — and with our communities countrywide. An expansive approach to elder justice is already being achieved.

In a special issue of the Journal of Crime and Justice, “Elders and the Criminal Justice System,” Blowers (2015) notes.

“The aging of our population has wide-ranging implications for virtually every facet of American society, including the criminal justice system. As the older population escalates, we can expect that elders will represent a larger proportion of crime victims, offenders, prison inmates, as well as citizens who interface with the criminal justice system as consumers of the court and legal system (Rothman, Dunlop, and Entzel 2000).”

Seniors may be offenders. My father went to jail at age 89.

This expanded, encompassing understanding of elder justice invites––no, commands––a greater understanding of all seniors and engagement with all stakeholders: professionals, and communities.

Communities countrywide

In working with those who are vulnerable and victimized (like older adults) we now realize that proactive community concern and capacity are just as important as professional “restoration,” which is damage-control-after-the-fact — and which, for elder justice, does not address the full nature of strengths and vulnerability.

Early on David Wolf (2003) wrote, with reference to successful strategies in addressing domestic abuse,

“A principal component of such initiatives in domestic violence is a well-developed and coordinated community response, involving community-wide efforts to bring together relevant stakeholders to respond to domestic violence comprehensively.”

And now, with reference to elder justice, Karen Roberto and colleagues (2015) propose,

…a community capacity framework that highlights how the criminal justice system can optimally interface with formal systems and informal networks to reduce the risks for elder abuse within the community and overcome barriers to intervention.

We must prevent abuse, more. Our greatest resources and our first line of offense are our communities, coupled with existing senior programs and services that can protect elders at risk.

Senior services and programs cultivate trust, relationships, and awareness among elders, their circle of support, and other professionals — justice and public safety included. Should abuse occur, these integral relationships demonstrate community concern and capacity, empowering individuals to come forward and act.

Damage control, alone, is unacceptable. Older adults (and their circles of support) must be valued, protected, and empowered before abuse occurs, not just after. Through justice and public safety in a community context we can advance from crisis intervention to prevention, which can best save seniors’ net worth, self worth, and lives.

Luckily, as noted by @KarlPillemer @CornellHDev ‏ and colleagues (2016),

“…elder abuse is likely the most widespread problem of older people that is largely preventable (unlike many disease conditions of old age).”

Just in time

The is an urgency in assessing and addressing our older American population given demographic trends—less births, increase in aging (Boomer bubble), and longevity—that find us in a new world.

As reported by the Administration on Aging (2016), in the United States,

  • People 65+ represented 14.9% of the population in the year 2015 but are expected to grow to be 21.7% of the population by 2040.
  • By 2040, 21% of the U.S. population will be 65 or over, with a threefold increase in those 85 or older.
  • The 85+ population is projected to triple from 6.3 million in 2015 to 14.6 million in 2040.

Yet, elder justice is decades behind other realms of justice, as noted by Anita Blowers and colleagues (2012, citing Stiegel 2008),

“While there has been a steady advancement in our understanding of elder mistreatment, consensus exists that society’s response to this type of abuse is analogous to where the response to child abuse was 30 years ago, and where the response to domestic violence was 10–20 years ago.”

Late out of the starting gate, elder justice can benefit from exploring other arenas of justice and public safety more— while recognizing distinct differences and special circumstances of elder abuse.

The Justice Clearinghouse provides such an opportunity.

Justice Clearinghouse

Justice Clearinghouse, @justicechannel, is the first integrated, multi-disciplinary online community for justice professionals. It is the only peer-to-peer, educational program for justice and public safety professionals that emphasizes the multi-disciplinary nature of an effective justice system. Through a year-round virtual conference, both audience and subscribers develop a more comprehensive understanding of the justice system and public safety by breaking down misconceptions and barriers that plague many systems.

Please join me Thursday, January 18, 2018 when I offer a webinar, The Brooke Astor Story: Hard-learned lessons that address elder abuse and financial exploitation (registration details included) to further explore aspects of elder justice — here, in the broader context of justice.

I welcome constructive criticism, comments, and resources. Please clap and share.

. . .

Philip C. Marshall, Founder, Beyond Brooke: Advancing elder justice

The mural was photographed after filming an interview with Dr. Jason Karlawish, Director, Penn Memory Center for Making Sense of Alzheimers.Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017.