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Headshot of author Sarah GalvanCivil Legal Aid & APS: Promising Practices & Emerging Models in Response to Elder Abuse

by Sarah Galvan, Justice in Aging and the National Center on Law & Elder Rights​

We know that when aging service providers collaborate, informally or formally, it creates a more holistic, person-centered response for older adults. The recent growth in multidisciplinary and elder abuse response teams demonstrates the impact of strong partnerships between civil legal aid and adult protective services (APS) in addressing elder abuse. Beyond these structured teams, there are many opportunities for enhanced relationship building and understanding in our work on a day to day basis.

In this post, I will share information on the spectrum of civil legal aid services for older adults, describe how you can find new and established legal aid partners, and highlight some exciting collaboration models to address elder abuse.

Role of Civil Legal Aid in Elder Abuse Cases

APS workers are aware of the complexity of power and control dynamics in elder abuse cases.  Frequently, the perpetrator of elder abuse is a family member or friend, and the older adult may want an outcome that does not involve a criminal response or investigation. For some APS older adult clients, substantial involvement of law enforcement may cause further trauma to them and their family. Regardless of whether or not a client chooses to pursue a case through the criminal justice system, connecting them to the civil justice system is an important step.

Civil legal aid is a combination of free legal assistance and resources that helps Americans of all backgrounds with civil legal problems to effectively navigate the justice system. Through direct legal representation and brief services, civil legal aid helps people access and protect life necessities, such as healthcare, housing, income benefits, and protection from abuse.

A referral to civil legal aid is a person-centered response to addressing both the elder abuse and its resulting challenges. In an attorney-client relationship, the client directs the course of representation; this empowers the individual to determine what happens next. I usually characterize the role of civil legal aid in elder abuse cases as falling into three categories:

  • Protection: This includes legal actions such as obtaining protective orders, revoking a power of attorney document, or seeking a termination of guardianship in abusive situations.
  • Redress: Legal aid attorneys can review potential options for civil recovery of stolen funds or property, including Social Security or Veterans’ benefits. Additionally, they can assist with disputing fraudulent credit card charges or accounts and other identity theft issues that may be causing financial distress.
  • Ancillary Issues: Older adults who have experienced abuse may have additional legal issues that arise as a result of the abuse. This includes, but is not limited to, Medicaid denials, access to in-home services and supports, and housing issues. 

Finding Civil Legal Aid Partners

Civil legal aid providers are structured and funded in many ways. Similar to APS, the services and guidelines vary from place to place, so it is important to get to know the providers serving older adults in your area. Here, are some potential programs for partnership:

  • Older Americans Act Title III-B Legal Assistance Providers: Area Agencies on Aging contract with civil legal aid providers to provide legal assistance to older adults (60 years and older). These programs are guided by the priority issue areas identified in the Older Americans Act: income, health care, long-term care, nutrition, housing, utilities, protective services, defense of guardianship, abuse, neglect and age discrimination. For more information on your local provider, visit the Eldercare Locator.
  • Elder Justice Program Fellows: Through funding from the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, Equal Justice Works has mobilized 22 attorney Fellows in 16 organizations across the country to provide legal services to older victims of elder abuse and exploitation. The program started in July 2020. The Fellows are engaging with allied partners and are great attorneys to connect with. For more information about the program and where the Fellows are located, visit the Equal Justice Works website.
  • VOCA-Funded Elder Abuse Programs: Some states have awarded Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding to programs that specifically address elder abuse, and many have a legal assistance component. This is not an exhaustive list, but some VOCA-funded elder abuse programs can be found here. The APS TARC brief, What APS Needs to Know About Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Funding, is also a good source of information.
  • Legal Assistance Enhancement Program: The Administration for Community Living’s (ACL) Elder Justice Program has funded six projects to enhance legal assistance to older adults. These programs are focused on outreach, intake, partnerships, and delivery. To learn more about these programs and where they are located, visit ACL’s website.

Collaborative Approaches

Multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) and elder abuse response teams are a growing form of collaboration across disciplines and are a great way to bring legal aid and APS to the same table to address elder abuse. If your community does not yet have one of these teams, the MDT Guide & Toolkit from the Department of Justice and the Resource Guide for Elder Financial Exploitation Prevention and Response Networks from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are excellent resources to start or grow a team in your area.

These collaborative teams have been found to be highly effective in extending the reach of community resources to address elder abuse. However, relationships between legal assistance providers and APS can extend beyond the cases and work that happens on these teams. With an understanding of guidelines and ethical obligations of each provider, as well as a clear referral system, these relationships can really blossom.  Recently, new technology has offered a way to build and maintain strong referral systems between legal and aging services providers.

Legal Risk Detector

A clear referral system between providers is key to a successful and ethical partnership. The Legal Risk Detector is a web-based tool that is designed to help non-attorney advocates screen older adults for potential legal issues. By walking through interview questions, the tool assesses the individual’s risk of having a legal issue and generates a report. The report is sent directly to a legal aid provider for follow up. The tool takes much of the guesswork out of the need for a non-attorney to identify legal issues and minimizes the work of making a warm referral. Pro Bono Net, in partnership with legal aid providers throughout the country, developed and refined the tool, which is currently utilized in 10 regions of the country. More information is available on the Aging Safely website.

Final Suggestions

If you are looking to establish a relationship with your local legal aid provider, but are not sure where to start, the National Center on Law and Elder Rights can help connect you to a civil legal aid program and provide you with technical assistance. Feel free to reach out to us if you want to share a collaboration that is working well in your community! We’d love to hear from you - contact us at

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