Your seventy-five year old client is a victim of elder abuse – financial, physical, verbal or emotional. Someone she trusted has done her harm, has wiped out her savings account, or stolen her credit card. Perhaps his unemployed adult child, with a substance abuse problem, has moved back in with him and is stealing from him. Your client is embarrassed, ashamed, helpless, humiliated, depressed and angry. You are a counselor of the law, not of the mental health variety. Where can you turn for help?
In November 2008, Contra Costa Superior Courts established an Elder Court to hear cases of elder abuse. Early in 2009, Senior Peer Counseling, a program of Contra Costa County Health Services Department, petitioned the court to append our counseling services and the Elder Court Support Program was inaugurated. Our mission is to meet elders with legal burdens, and support them through a resolution of their legal matters. We are not attorneys or legal experts; we are older adults, with a perspective on later life, dedicated to this mission.
The Elder Court Program has three support avenues:
- Meeting with elder victims as early in their legal processes as possible, hopefully before the court proceeding. A counseling relationship is established to offer support around the emotional issues of their legal matters.
To help relieve any anxiety before a court appearance, our counselors talk with clients about what is likely to happen. We accompany clients to court, to be another pair of ears and talk with the clients after the court hearing. We try to help keep clients on track. If they are testifying, we help with “rehearsals” – opportunities to practice answering questions about the legal problem – so they can become more comfortable with what might happen in court. Most importantly, we address the emotional issues of their legal burdens.
- Providing in-court assistance on Elder Court Tuesdays. Peer counselors are available to meet plaintiffs and petitioners at Department 22 to answer questions about court procedure, paperwork and what’s next. In an effort to make the experience less confusing, anxiety-ridden, or intimidating, we show them into the court room, where to sit and what to expect.
The counselors’ presence at Elder Court is a unique service. Senior Peer Counselors are on hand outside the courtroom every Tuesday morning to greet petitioners without counsel who are coming for restraining order hearings. It is not difficult to identify them coming down the corridor towards us: some tread slowly, some have walkers or wheelchairs. Nearly all appear worried, confused, even frightened. When we greet these petitioners, their relief is often palpable. “I’m so nervous,” they say. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” “I’ve never been to court before.”
Although information and assistance before a hearing may be useful, our presence at Elder Court is to help with the emotional content of their legal burden. We often spend up to half an hour with petitioners following their hearing to help them work through what has just happened. All too often the respondent is a family member. Taking legal action against a loved one can weigh heavily on the elder.
- Follow-up reassurance calls and/or longer term counseling. Reassurance calls are made at the end of their court day or the next week, to be sure the victim is comfortable with what happened, to see if there are any questions about what happened, or about the court ruling, to lend an ear to the emotional aftermath and offer support. Particularly in the cases of petitioners without counsel, questions often arise later in the day. SPC’s phone calls offer an opportunity to air their questions, concerns, disappointments, and relief that the court proceeding is over. If the client wishes, we refer them to our regular counseling program. In 2010, SPC counselors met over 120 elders who came to Elder Court. About half accepted our offer of follow-up calls or visits. In addition, counselors worked with nearly forty individuals, both in and out of court proceedings, with longer-term counseling.
As a resource for the District Attorney’s Office Victims Assistance Program, we have been providing assistance to older victims, especially those who are coming to court to testify. In criminal cases, with the many weeks and months of waiting for court hearings, it is often difficult for an elder to cope. Our support through these time periods offers the victim someone to talk to, someone who will listen and help them manage the long process emotionally.
If you have a client who might benefit from Senior Peer Counseling or the Elder Court Support Program, please consider the following:
- Ask clients if they think talking to someone – not involved, neutral, non-judgmental – might help.
- Refer clients as early in the legal process as possible.
- We are careful not to give any advice, legal or otherwise.
- Our counseling relationship is strictly confidential, unless the client gives us permission to talk to other parties.
- We go to our clients’ homes; although, if this is not a comfortable environment for them, we will meet them elsewhere.
- Although Elder Court is for seniors sixty-five and older, SPC’s minimum age is fifty-five.
- Our counselors are trained volunteers; our services are free!
- Senior Peer Counseling Program Office: 925-521-5640
- SPC Program Director: Ken Salonen, LCSW: 925-521-5636
- Chinese Senior Peer Counseling: Anna Chang, MSW: 925-521-5638
- Latino Senior Peer Counseling: Liz Villafuerte-Jones, MFT: 925-521-5653
- Tina Olton, Volunteer Counselor & Coodinator; Elder Court Support Program of Senior Peer Counseling; Contra Costa County Health Services, Older Adult Mental Health Program
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