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Unique Elder Court Protects Seniors With Special Needs

Unique Elder Court Protects Seniors With Special Needs

 

Written by Pamela A MacLean

MARTINEZ, Calif.–Carol Mathey stands nervously before Judge Joyce Cram in what may be the country’s only elder court, pleading for a restraining order against her daughter, who sits grim-faced 10 feet away.

Testifying on a chilly, late-January morning in Martinez, Calif., a blue-collar town east of San Francisco, Mathey says the young woman, a boyfriend and their toddler moved into her mobile home and won’t leave. “She threw my stuff out once before in the rain,” says Mathey, wearing a thin sweatshirt and slacks. “I’ve been living in my car since January 7.”

The 60-something mother, whose gray-streaked brown hair is pulled into a short ponytail, wipes away tears. “She’s threatening to throw my stuff out again. She yells at me,” she tells the judge. “I’m sorry, but a woman shouldn’t have to live in terror like this.”

Mathey’s case is one of five restraining order requests Cram hears that morning in the only court of its kind in California, and likely the nation. Each Tuesday, people shuffle through metal detectors and into the Spinetta Family Center to reach Cram’s courtroom. Inside, the judge hears criminal cases of alleged elder physical or financial abuse, probate matters, civil cases and restraining order requests, all involving seniors.

Idea Catching on Nationally

Although five other California counties provide elder court services by combining criminal elder-abuse cases and restraining-order requests, only this Contra Costa County court has relegated all elder legal issues to one special courtroom.

However, the idea may be catching on. The court’s staff has seen a visiting judge from Chicago and have taken its show on the road, giving seminars to other county courts around the state and even to New York.

Large cheery paintings by school children hang on the courtroom wall. A sign at the rear of the court tells visitors that equipment is available to aid visitors with trouble hearing the proceedings. Despite the welcoming atmosphere, court proceedings can be intimidating.

But seniors like Mathey don’t have to face their hearings alone. A slender woman with a welcoming smile and a headscarf provides another important benefit to the elders. Tina Olton is a volunteer senior peer counseling helper, who guides seniors unfamiliar with the courts through the process.

Olton retired from a career as a university financial officer to help organize the counseling in 2008, as part of the Contra Costa County Health Services, Senior Peer Counseling program.

Olton’s trained counselors meet seniors outside the courtroom to explain what will happen. Later in the day they make what Olton refers to as a “reassurance call” to see how the seniors are doing. Two of Olton’s volunteers sit with Mathey to support her throughout the hearing, as she asks the judge to force her daughter, Ginger Huffman, out of the mobile home.

Huffman gets to present her side, too. She tells the judge that she and her boyfriend agreed to do major renovations to the mobile home in exchange for Mathey paying the $500 monthly lease and allowing them to live there.

“We did all this work and she agreed to pay the rent,” Huffman explains. Then her mother stopped paying. She adds that her mother is depressed and takes medication for it, “But not enough. She needs more.”

Huffman claims she put her mother’s belongings outside in plastic bags under a covered porch, not in the rain. She says she can’t afford to move, and can’t get work due to a back injury. Huffman tells the judge “we will probably be living in a shelter,” if her mother’s request is granted.

Now, it’s the judge’s turn. Cram points out to Huffman the mobile-home lease is in Mathey’s name and it is her home. She orders a one-year restraining order and tells Huffman she must move out and stay 100 yards away from her mother. Huffman interrupts the judge to shout, “So you’re going to make us homeless?”

Cram simply responds, “I am granting the order.” Huffman abruptly stomps out of court; Mathey leaves slowly, in the company of the counselors and in tears.

Olton says the response is not unusual for seniors. The peer counselors are also concerned with the aftermath of the orders. In Mathey’s case Olton is concerned about her comment that she couldn’t afford the lease on her home. “I worry about how she is paying bills, if she doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent. If that’s true she may need financial management services. The counselors can hook her up with other agencies and services that may help,” she says.

Growing Influx of Seniors

As courts search for effective ways to handle the needs of the growing influx of seniors who may have special mental and physical limitations the very definition of some mental disorders affecting elders will be changing. (See Part 1)

Regarding Huffman, Olton says, “The emotional abuse on her mother was significant, but proving it is tough. A lot of times the judge will ask the elder, ‘Are you afraid of him, and if so, why? She may ask, ‘Does he get up close in your face and yell?’ We’re learning more about what is thought to be abuse of elders,” she said.

In an interview a short while later, the judge says it is often very difficult for a parent to come to court seeking a restraining order against a child or grandchild. Yet about one in seven older Americans living outside institutions experienced physical, psychological or financial abuse, according to a 2011 government study.

Given the amount of unreported elder abuse, whether physical, psychological and financial, Cram says, “We probably could see 10 times as many restraining order requests.”

This post was originally published by New America Media.

 

Related Stories:

Home Care Workers Help Those We Love; Now They Need Us

Compassion for New York City’s Elderly

Fraud and Abuse Are Routine In Care of Disabled in New York

 

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17 comments

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12:34PM PDT on Sep 17, 2012

Seniors are usually discriminated against. This is nice to hear.

4:21PM PDT on Mar 16, 2012

Older people are just older.
They may need some help with lifting things, and carrying things.
But unless they have a mental issue, they are full of stories and life experiences.

2:32PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Great idea!

12:37PM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

But don't regular courts work any more? Or are seniors no longer regarded as people and so need a different version?

11:56AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

I think these courts are a wonderful idea.

11:11AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Elder abuse is a growing problem and will continue to escalate as the boomers grow into elderly citizenry. We need strong new laws in all States, easily enforceable, to protect seniors. There needs to be in place a social services alert system set up with monthly monitoring to check up on the elderly; just as there exists for children in risky homes. Stop the wars and planned invasions of Iran, focu on real issues at home. Use our resources wisely to protect the elderly who have devoted their lives to make our society what it is today.

11:11AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Elder abuse is a growing problem and will continue to escalate as the boomers grow into elderly citizenry. We need strong new laws in all States, easily enforceable, to protect seniors. There needs to be in place a social services alert system set up with monthly monitoring to check up on the elderly; just as there exists for children in risky homes. Stop the wars and planned invasions of Iran, focu on real issues at home. Use our resources wisely to protect the elderly who have devoted their lives to make our society what it is today.

8:40AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Thank you for the article and information. As we boomers get older and older it's going to be more needed I fear.

8:26AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

These courts are a great idea!!! They need to be in place all over our country.The abuse of the elderly is on an increase due to the busy lives of the younger generation.There is no longer time to take care of the people who raised them and loved them.The elderly are looked down on and in some cases despised by the so-called caretakers who are paid to care for them.These courts give the elderly a voice.

6:54AM PDT on Mar 15, 2012

Whatever happened to "Respect Your Elders"? I suppose,it went down the tubes,just like "Speak,when your spoken to". It would seem,that the older one grows,the greater their needs. We are NOT,just numbers ,to be pushed into ordered rows...

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WOW, this is great news... seems so very rare now a days !

Alfred Charles "Al" Sharpton, Jr.[2] (born October 3, 1954) an American Baptist minister, civil rights…

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