A Friend in the System

With her elder-abuse court, and a new witness-assistance program, an Alameda County judge aims to help local seniors under duress.

The trouble started this summer, after the cancer had spread from Etta Johnson’s lung into her bones and brain. Weak and unable to care for herself, she spent her last months bedridden. According to Etta’s daughter Carla, a registered nurse, the 72-year-old widow’s waning life was anything but serene. Living with Etta in her East Oakland house were her two youngest children: Steven, 35, and Travis, 34, who has Down syndrome. Steven cared for his mother and on weekends helped with Travis, who has the mental capacity of a four-year-old. As Etta got sicker, Steven’s siblings worried he was overburdened, especially after they discovered that he had a drinking problem.

Etta, a diabetic, complained to another relative that Steven sometimes yelled at her when she asked to be fed, and left her at home for hours without food. In late June, Carla says, her mother told her she wanted to move out. As Carla rushed to convert her own home’s office into a bedroom, Etta called in a panic saying Steven had gotten into a drunken brawl at the house. That day, Etta moved out and never saw her home again. She died in a hospital bed six weeks later following a fall that broke her hip. (Family members’ names were changed for this story at Carla’s request.)

While nonrelative caretakers have been the focus of some high-profile elder-abuse cases, the abusers in most of the half-million cases reported annually are members of the victim’s family. The stories are jarring: a menacing crack-addict son defecates in his mother’s flower pots and pilfers her belongings when she goes out; a pair of daughters steal nearly $200,000 from their mother, who is 74 and suffers from dementia; a wheelchair-bound mother is choked by her son when she refuses to give him money; a partially paralyzed cancer sufferer is left by her son for 21 hours without food, or left to struggle on the floor following a fall.

Not the sort of tales Judge Julie Conger enjoys. Conger, who sits on the Alameda County Superior Court, has been instrumental in creating programs to help seniors get protection from their abusers. A few years ago, as she celebrated her twentieth year on the bench, the gray-haired jurist, a senior citizen herself, became preoccupied with the number of seniors she saw languishing in her drama-filled “Jerry Springer” domestic violence court. The elderly restraining-order seekers were forced to sit through lengthy, often traumatic sessions — a reality Conger found disturbing.

At first, the judge tried to help by picking the seniors out of the crowd for special attention. “I told my clerks that every time they saw a gray head in the courtroom, they should bring the restraining-order file to me right away,” she says.

But that was a mere Band-Aid. Conger soon resolved to tackle the problem in earnest, and over the past three years, Alameda County seniors have been flocking to Conger’s brainchild. Her Elder Protection Court Program is the nation’s only court calendar dedicated exclusively to elder-abuse restraining orders. She holds sessions in the late morning — to give seniors plenty of time to get up and going, Conger explains — and a case manager hired with special grant money is there to make sure cases don’t fall through the cracks. On January 4, Conger plans to take things a step further with a new weekly session dedicated to senior witnesses in felony abuse cases.

The growing client numbers have proven the validity of Conger’s concept. The elder-court docket, which began with just a handful of cases, now handles nearly 150 per month. Each week, seniors make their way to county courthouses in Oakland, Hayward, Pleasanton, or Fremont, where walkers and wheelchairs create hallway traffic jams. The elderly men and women make their case to Conger and other Superior Court judges, often denouncing children and grandchildren who have stolen from, harassed, or abused them.

Listening as these family feuds play out can be depressing — the old folks’ eyes express sadness and shame as they recount how the children they reared are now neglecting or harming them. And although the seniors can no longer abide their situations, most still love their abusers, which makes the cases hard to prosecute. In searching through court documents for prosecutable offenses, “many cases present as minor issues that really aren’t,” notes Shadia Merukeb, a victim consultant with the district attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Division. It is a challenge, she says, to convince abused seniors to press charges against their relatives. “It depends on where they are in their life, if they’ve been dealing with it for a long time,” she says. “There is a lot of guilt around wanting to help their child but wanting to stop the abuse from happening. … It’s hard to get them to stop enabling.”

Many people who abuse older relatives have substance-abuse issues or are mentally ill, says attorney Hong Chew, who handles elder-abuse cases for Legal Assistance for Seniors, an Oakland nonprofit. The elder court, he says, gives seniors some leverage to try and change their abusers’ behavior. In the milder cases — those not involving physical violence — the court offers perpetrators a chance at redemption. Conger may order a son to stop drinking before he can visit his mother; or if a drug-dealing grandson wants to see his grandmother, he can take her to church on Sundays. That way, “nobody’s a loser,” Conger says.

“The children,” the judge explains, “recognize that they don’t have that much time left with their parent and also want the parent to be proud of them and know that they’ve overcome the condition that caused them to come in for the restraining order in the first place.”

When Chew helps his elderly clients get restraining orders in family-abuse situations, he lets them know about visitation possibilities. “That’s an option which helps protect elders, and helps repair relationships,” he says. The lawyer says he often feels like a social worker, and tries his best to listen to clients who are often ignored elsewhere. “How do you feel?” he asks them. “What can we do to repair things?”

Raising public awareness of the problem is an ongoing struggle. Elder abuse, Merukeb says, is where domestic violence was 25 years ago. She’s seen some recent signs of progress, however. In her five years with the DA’s office, she’s noticed that police officers are recognizing the signs more often, and more local cases are being reported. Chew alone handled nearly three hundred cases in the past year. Yet the National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that only about one in six cases gets reported.

Official awareness of elder abuse, Chew notes, has also led to a countywide phone-tree of sorts that links Adult Protective Services, the county courts, and law enforcement, and helps authorities respond to problems more quickly.

Carla Johnson, of course, is a fan of increased vigilance. Before her mother’s death she discovered that her brother Steven had taken more than $25,000 from their developmentally disabled brother’s bank account in little more than a year. After she cut off that ATM card and petitioned to restrict Steven’s access to their late mother’s assets, her brother — whom she knows has had guns in the past — began badgering and threatening her. So she got a restraining order, which she knows can do only so much. “I shouldn’t have to live in fear of him,” she says.

Meanwhile Conger — who in September pulled down the state’s most prestigious court award, the Judicial Council of California’s Ralph N. Kleps Awards for Improvement in Administration of the Courts — is itching to launch her senior witness court. The new weekly sessions, Conger says, will help seniors navigate the court bureaucracy, and will capture their testimony early. That way, should the victims of abuse never make it alive, or lucid, to the trial proceedings, they’ll still have something to say about the matter.

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