Shaping Systems’ Responses to Abuse in Later Life

Linda Dawson
Linda Dawson, J.D.
NCALL 20th Anniversary Blog Series
Linda Dawson

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

My work as a prosecutor in the Dane County DA’s office led me to better understand the importance of a coordinated community response to issues of child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse.  Through collaboration and coordination with others, we could provide better training for officers who were responding to and investigating these sensitive crime cases, prosecutors who worked to appropriately hold abusers accountable, and judges who presided over restraining orders, family court, and criminal court cases. It also led to a better understanding between and among other agencies responding to these cases, to the benefit of all.

This work led me to do state-wide work with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.  There, I was able to apply the lessons learned in the DA’s office to regulatory enforcement involving individual and systemic violations of care of vulnerable individuals by professional caregivers in regulated health care settings, such as assisted living and nursing homes.

With Jane Raymond, the head of Wisconsin’s Adult Protective Services, Betsy Abramson, and other committed community and tribal leaders, we were able to modernize the Adult Protective Services and Guardianship laws in Wisconsin to recognize and offer protection and services to adults at risk of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.  As baby boomers age, preventing the abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation of elders is urgent.  Working collaboratively with others across the state to enhance the quality of life of some of our most vulnerable citizens inspired me to do more related to issues of abuse in later life.

What inspired you to join the work at NCALL?

I was ready to take the policy and practice work I had done at local and state level to the national level. Joining NCALL’s talented, groundbreaking, and committed team was a privilege and felt like a natural next step in my career. I hoped to contribute lessons I had learned in the criminal justice and regulatory systems to the work NCALL was doing. I was eager to work alongside of and learn from NCALL’s Director, Bonnie Brandl, whose work I admired as a leader in the elder abuse field, Ann Turner, whose work as an advocate was well-known in Wisconsin, and others associated with NCALL.

In my role as NCALL’s Justice Systems’ Coordinator, I worked with communities across the country to establish Elder Abuse Coordinated Community Response (CCR) Teams and provide elder abuse training to law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, among others.  I enjoyed working closely with rural, urban, and tribal communities to develop programs that fit their needs, laws, resources, and populations.  I was excited to be able to share ideas within and across communities, help shape policies and practices related to abuse in later life and work with dedicated professionals who truly cared and wanted to make a difference.

NCALL had been (and continues to be) a leader in the elder abuse prevention and intervention field. I hoped to contribute to their work, especially in shaping systems’ responses to this important issue.  I also hoped to contribute to the national dialog about adequately funding resources to address and prevent abuse in later life.

What do you see as NCALL’s biggest impact over the last 20 years?

NCALL’s work with the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women has been instrumental in shaping the awareness and approach to abuse in later life in across the country and internationally.  Twenty years ago, elder abuse was hidden or excused.  Physical and emotional abuse or neglect by family members was attributed to “caregiver stress.”  As a result, the focus and resources were on helping the caregiver, not the victim.

NCALL worked with victims to redefine the issue and to identify the factors of power and control at play in abuse in later life cases.  NCALL then developed training materials for communities, law enforcement, advocates, adult protective service workers, legal services attorneys, prosecutors, judges, health care workers, first responders, clergy, and many others to address the existing myths and stereotypes.

Before this interdisciplinary model was encouraged, systems often worked separately in silos, allowing victims to fall through the cracks or fail to receive needed services.  Abusers were not held accountable.  Financial exploitation was difficult to prove or stop.  NCALL’s training tools allowed for and encouraged collaboration across and within agencies and organizations responding to these cases, to the benefit of elders.  As a result, lives have been saved and improved.

In addition, Bonnie Brandl identified key partners, led policy discussions, and guided agencies toward improved responses to the issues related to abuse in later life.  She and the other members of the NCALL team encouraged the development of interdisciplinary training and educational materials, including defining the terms used by those who respond to and work with victims of abuse in later life.  Without NCALL’s dedicated work, the field would not be where it is today.

What is the largest shift you have seen in the field of abuse in later life over your time participating in it?

The issue of elder abuse is more visible. As with other sensitive crimes, abuse in later life thrives in secrecy; exposure helps protect victims. Awareness is key.  The outreach to urban, rural, and tribal communities has led to critical changes in identifying and responding to abuse in later life. Communities recognize that elders can be harmed in any setting—at home, in the community, or in a health care setting. Cases that once were dismissed as “family matters” are being investigated, and if appropriate, prosecuted to hold abusers accountable.  Banks now flag cases of suspected financial exploitation of elders.  Concerned family members, neighbors, and professionals are more knowledgeable about signs of elder abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), neglect, and financial exploitation. They are likely to act to prevent further harm.

Laws have changed to protect adults at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation.  More communities have dedicated resources available for older individuals and their families to intervene to prevent harm and exploitation. These changes have made it safer to grow old with the dignity and respect individuals deserve.

What do you see as the main priorities for leaders in this work heading into the next 20 years?

Leaders in the work of abuse in later life will need to continue to expand outreach to marginalized and underserved populations. They also will need to be creative in identifying resources to address the emerging issues related to the aging population in America (and other countries).  As people age and have greater and different needs for care, there are more opportunities for abuse, neglect, and exploitation. The community resources are already being stressed.  The political will to fund innovative programs to address abuse in later life may falter given other fiscal and policy demands.  The field’s leaders will need to keep the light shining bright to keep that from happening.

It was a privilege to work with NCALL’s team and teams across the country on the issues of abuse of later life.  I hope that by contributing to NCALL’s work, we helped make a difference in people’s lives, change the attitude of professionals responding to cases of elder abuse, open doors for victims to receive help, expand the outreach in communities, and encourage agencies to work collaboratively with others.  I applaud the work NCALL has done and continues to do.  Happy Anniversary, NCALL!

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