NCALL 20th Anniversary Blog Series

Bonnie Brandl: image of woman wearing blue shirt and blue sweater, smiling
Bonnie Brandl,  NCALL Director
NCALL 20th Anniversary Blog Series
Bonnie Brandl

In 2019 The National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL) is celebrating 20 years of engaging communities to foster a collaborative, inclusive, survivor-centered response to abuse in later life. Over the next 12-months, we will be highlighting perspectives and stories from staff, allies and older survivors who have worked closely for or with NCALL over the past 20 years. To kick off this exciting anniversary year, NCALL Director, Bonnie Brandl, answered some questions to reflect on how we got here, and what she is looking towards in the future.

Let’s start at the beginning, what inspired you to start the work of NCALL?

The National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life was born from lessons learned listening to older victims of abuse and working closely with key partners in Wisconsin.   In 1994 – 1996, End Abuse WI received national demonstration project funding from the Administration on Aging.  Jane Raymond, lead staff in Wisconsin for adult protective services, and I worked with state and local partners to develop educational materials to address the needs of older victims of domestic violence. We learned so much from this process.  After the grant ended, I traveled throughout the United States sharing the knowledge I gained and learning still more from other older survivors and professionals.

From there, with the support of Mary Lauby, Amy Judy, Betsy Abramson, Linda Dawson, and of course Jane and others, we applied for funding with the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) to create a national clearinghouse as a vehicle to continue this work. Since then, NCALL has prided itself on providing leadership on training and technical assistance throughout the United States on how to address victims whose lived experiences are at the intersection of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and elder abuse.

What moves you to work on issues related to abuse in later life?

I am moved by the older survivors of abuse I’ve met in the more than 25+ years I’ve been doing this work. Helen, who I worked with as a shelter advocate in 1983, Bonnie H and other women attending support groups throughout Wisconsin in the 1990s, and all the survivors we filmed for In Their Own Words in 2007 and Lifting Up Voices of Older Survivors in 2018—I am humbled by your courage, strength, and resiliency. I’ve also had the privilege to work with many amazing professionals (too many wonderful people to list in this blog so forgive me*) throughout Wisconsin, the United States, and around the world whose commitment to confronting ageism, addressing abuse in later life, and promoting elder justice is inspiring.  And of course, I have been blessed to work with NCALL staff and consultants who are committed to delivering high quality training, technical assistance, and materials while maintaining a sense of joy and humor.

NCALL has covered a lot of ground over the years. What would you say is the organization’s biggest impact over the past 20 years?

NCALL’s staff and consultants throughout the United States have accomplished so many things it’s hard to know where to begin! I am proud of our work with the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) as the sole comprehensive national technical assistance provider and resource center for the OVW Abuse in Later Life grantee program. Since 2006, OVW and NCALL have worked with over 100 communities, tribes and territories to educate professionals, create and enhance a coordinated community response and deliver victim services. In partnership with OVW’s Janice Green and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Futures Without Violence and AEquitas, we created curricula for law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates, and victim service providers and have trained thousands of professionals, who then have been able to disseminate those trainings further into their communities. I am proud to have worked with MT Connelly, Risa Breckman, Andy Mao and many others on the Elder Justice Roadmap project. Our work to create a toolkit and other materials with Anne Marie Hunter and Alyson Morse Katzman of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership on Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse has been a gift to me personally and to the field. I’ve felt privileged to work with Jim Vanden Bosch of Terra Nova Films and Meg Morrow and Laura Ivkovich from the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to create the video products In Their Own Words and Lifting Up Voices of Older Survivors. And most recently, I’m thrilled that NCALL is partnering with the Vera Institute of Justice and OVC’s National Resource Center on Reaching Victims to better address the needs of victims from marginalized and diverse communities.

The landscape has changed over the years. What do you see as the largest shift in the field of abuse in later life?

When I started doing this work in the early 1990’s, research suggested that caregiver stress was the primary cause of elder abuse. One can see how this is an easy assumption to make. But, over the years, through additional research, and listening to victims, we learned that the causes of elder abuse are more complex than caregiver burden, and that more multifaceted approaches are required. The field has moved to understand the role of entitlement and power and control tactics by abusers in many elder abuse situations.  A collaborative approach is crucial to engage the victim services field, the criminal justice system, adult protective services, the aging services network, health care, the faith community and others in promoting victim safety and holding offenders accountable.

Looking ahead, what do you see as the main set of priorities for leaders in this work going into the next 20 years?

There are so many opportunities! As a society, we need to promote dignity and respect of all individuals by celebrating the wisdom and lived experience of older adults while confronting ageist assumptions, attitudes and behaviors.  As a field, we need to meet older victims where they are at – including addressing how race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, and physical and mental health conditions may impact the options available to older victims and the choices they make.  We need to work more closely with the trauma, mental health, and substance abuse fields to better serve victims and to work towards healing and accountability, when possible, for those who harm older adults. We need to learn more from people who are studying dementia and other brain disorders about effective interventions and safety planning with people with cognitive challenges. We need program evaluation to better understand which services and interventions are most effective for various, diverse populations, particularly for those who have experienced chronic trauma throughout their lives, either through child abuse, or intimate partner violence earlier in life. If that is not enough to tackle, I’d love to see more work on prevention and social justice that shifts us from a set of societal norms that devalues older individuals to a culture that is unwilling to ignore abuse, neglect and exploitation against older adults, and sees people in later life as holding value and strength in our communities.

*NCALL thanks all of the folks not mentioned explicitly who contributed to the founding and growing of NCALL over the past 20 years.

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