Prior to law school, I worked as a lay advocate for a Milwaukee nonprofit that helped educate low-income families about changes implemented under the 1996 federal welfare reform act. As a 24-year-old keen on helping to bring economic justice to Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods, I regarded the welfare agencies as the black-hat guys, administering a program that was, I believed, designed to keep people poor. It was a simplistic view of the world that fed my passion but did little to resolve complex problems in a meaningful or sustainable way.
My agency’s executive director was a former priest named Ramon Wagner. He cared little about having sharp suits or a fancy (or even clean) office. His life’s mission was to help low-income people meet their basic needs by teaching them to effectively navigate the systems that impacted their lives – and, when needed, to improve those systems from within. He knew that, with systems as with people, change must start from within. So, under Ramon’s guidance, my thinking began to evolve: instead of viewing these programs as the problem, we identified opportunities to partner with them. We brought welfare agencies, community stakeholders, and welfare program participants together to identify shared goals, and to strategize around how to draw on our individual skills and resources to craft solutions that addressed the needs of all parties.
As NCALL’s Justice System Coordinator, I am often reminded of these efforts, and grateful for Ramon’s example. A foundational principle of the Office on Violence Against Women Enhanced Training and Services to End Abuse in Later Life (OVW ALL) program is that collaboration is essential. As grantees are aware, that collaboration begins before the grant application is even submitted – a successful application requires buy-in and commitments from law enforcement, prosecutors/state’s attorneys, victim service providers, and nonprofit or government agencies with experience assisting older individuals. Once grants are awarded, collaboration underpins grantee work in all of the program’s purpose areas: direct and cross-training, providing victim services, and creating or enhancing a multidisciplinary collaborative community response.
Collaboration is at the heart of some of the most dramatic OVW ALL grantee success stories. In Colorado Springs, 80 community partners supported the grant’s goals, and a multidisciplinary training team provided elder abuse training to 820 sworn officers from 10 different jurisdictions. Adult Protective Services in Albany, NY, reported a 46% increase in calls to their agency, which they believe to be a direct result of grant-funded training of law enforcement and victim service providers. And the Salem (MA) Police Department partnered with APS to address situations where protective services staff become aware of older adults who may be endangered due to the presence of a firearm in the home. The police department works with the firearm owner to obtain a voluntary surrender, while APS ensures the older adult has access to information and services that enable them to live in safety.
With successful collaboration, these communities were able to enhance victim safety and offender accountability through interventions that were thoughtfully and ethically implemented, and that respected victim autonomy and self-determination. Establishing a sustainable collaborative project is a process – the entities involved will need to navigate obstacles like differing confidentiality policies, mandatory reporting obligations, philosophical approaches, and organizational missions. But, as my mentor Ramon knew, overcoming these obstacles leads to increased trust and cooperation among project partners, thereby improving service delivery. Timely access to appropriate services is key to successful outcomes and can, in fact, save lives.
For me, it is an honor to support grantees from across the nation who are committed to improving the lives of older adults by creating long-term systems change in their communities. As we observe NCALL’s 20th anniversary, we recognize the diverse array of successful collaborations that have developed under the grant program, and we are grateful for the many partnerships that support us in this work. Thank you for your willingness to do things in new ways as we work together to create a world where older adults live in safety and dignity.