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B-N Attorney Fighting Elder Abuse Through National Fellowship

Equal Justice Works
Bloomington Attorney Megan McGlothlin Wood with Prairie State Legal Services is part of a national team working to improve the legal network for victims of elder abuse.

A Bloomington attorney is part of a national cohort confronting the "hidden epidemic" of elder abuse.

Megan McGlothlin Wood is an attorney with Prairie State Legal Services. She’s also a fellow through the Equal Justice Works Elder Justice Program, which provides civil legal aid to older adult victims of abuse and neglect.

Wood said the goal is to improve the network of legal services, so that social service agencies, law enforcement, and the state's attorney's office know where to send people when these issues are identified--and that the response is quick and effective.

An estimated one in 10 adults over age 60 are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Wood said some of the most common cases are consumer issues.

“People with debt who are having trouble making ends meet because they have a debt that's being collected improperly,” she said. “People who are susceptible to scams and so they are using their limited income or assets that they saved for later in life on these sort of get-rich-quick scams or thinking that they're helping a family member in an emergency.”

They’ve also seen physical and emotional abuse, Wood said, as well as a lot of financial exploitation cases. She said those cases can take many forms.

“Some are more subtle than others. The really obvious would be a person acting as a caretaker getting themselves added to a bank account and then draining the bank account. But the less obvious are things like moving in with an older adult and providing care, but also taking advantage of them financially,” Wood said.

These are things that are difficult for people to undo on their own, she said, without the help of an attorney.

Prairie State already receives funding to work with older adults, Wood said. That money grows each year and typically comes through the Area Agency on Aging. But data indicated the scope of the elder abuse problem was larger than the services could handle. Equal Justice Works created the class of 22 fellows, with projects tailored to address the issues specifically in their service area.

Wood covers 17 counties in central Illinois. For now, Wood is the only fellow in the region, though she notes they’re considering bringing on a second.

Wood said most of the cases she handles are referrals through Adult Protective Services or a regional ombudsman.

“We're also doing some additional outreach that we had not done as much as before,” she said. “That includes trying to distribute paper flyers and make this project accessible to people by phone. For people that don't have access to tech, we want to reach them and give them a place to contact that doesn't require them to leave their home, if that's not safe for them right now, or doesn't require them to go locate a computer.”

Wood said once they handle a case somewhere, word tends to spread about the services and more cases will pop up around that area.

She said the challenges can look a little different, depending how rural the area is.

“Some of the issues are the same. Older adult children moving in and becoming a problem--that happens everywhere,” Wood said. “But for folks that are very rural, it's a lot more difficult for them to access services. A lot of them only have law enforcement as an intervention. They don't have social services that are close by that that may help to address some of these problems.”

Wood said there isn’t concrete evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened elder abuse. But the warning signs are all there, she said.

“The concern is always that domestic abuse gets worse when people are under stress, when people are under economic stress,” Wood said. “We know that people are sharing households because of the economic stress of the pandemic. It feels like this situation is ripe for elder abuse issues.”

At the same time, Wood said, older adults aren’t having the same contact with the community they might normally have—like going to a senior center or adult day services--because of the risk of coronavirus exposure. She said that means there are fewer people around to report neglect or abuse on their behalf.

Wood said the caseload has been lighter than expected, but the cases they have been working on are incredibly complex.

“Some of them have three or four legal issues that have stemmed from the abuse or exploitation that they've experienced,” she said. “They may need an order of protection, and also assistance with changing their housing (or) breaking a lease because of abuse. They may need some advocacy with law enforcement to enforce the protective order that they have. And then they may have some debt issues, because part of the abuse was taking out credit cards in their name.”

Wood said more victims are likely to come out of the woodwork as word spreads about the services. She’s nearly halfway through the two-year fellowship through Equal Justice Works, but said Prairie State Legal Services will continue to advocate for victims of elder abuse long after the program ends.

Wood encourages those who need assistance to call Prairie State Legal Services at (309) 827-5021.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.