Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : May 2005

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"Stalwart Advocates for Baltimore City Seniors"
By Lisa Muscara

Age discrimination, housing issues, estate planning, Social Security and disability, Medicaid and Medicare, health law, elder abuse and fraud – these are all major components of elder law practice. Addressing this wide range of legal needs, the Bar Association of Baltimore City’s Legal Services to the Elderly Program (LSEP) serves as a tremendous resource for Charm City’s senior residents.

Drawing from an expansive panel of over 100 volunteer attorneys, LSEP provides legal services to Baltimore City seniors through two main avenues. Many volunteer attorneys provide direct representation for clients in need while others perform outreach and education in locations where senior citizens are likely to gather, including senior centers, places of worship, nursing homes and the Annual Law Day for the Elderly. These outreach efforts are intended to help seniors avoid legal problems and solve dilemmas because, as program coordinator Tracey Harvin, Esq., explains, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, particularly in these situations.”

LSEP has established cooperative efforts with other Baltimore City agencies (including the Department of Social Services, Baltimore City Police Department, Baltimore City State’s Attorneys Office and the Office of the Attorney General) to eradicate the largely hidden problem of abuse of the elderly and vulnerable adults. The extent of elder abuse is unknown, and many incidents go unreported. Senior advocates agree, however, that the problem affects a significant number of senior citizens. Older adults who suffer from debilitating health problems or other impairments are particularly vulnerable to financial, physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse from family members, caregivers or persons close to them whom the senior trusts to handle his or her money and/or to perform needed tasks.

Volunteer and staff attorneys from the program often find themselves advocating for clients in cases of fraud and abuse. Financial fraud and exploitation, Harvin explains, are common forms of elder abuse. In the overwhelming majority of cases such as these, seniors are being abused and defrauded by their own family members. “It’s typically someone who the senior trusts, and of course that’s why they were in a position to have access to the senior’s accounts or checks,” she notes. “Since it’s someone whom the senior trusts, or trusted, they (the senior) may be quite reluctant to file charges.”

And the frequency of these situations is startling. “We get one of these calls at least once a week,” says Harvin. “It’s as common as rain. I hate to say it, but it is.” When LSEP encounters a case like this, program attorneys have the rewarding opportunity to help clients navigate their way out of what can easily become devastating circumstances. LSEP attorneys have helped countless defrauded and abused seniors save their homes from foreclosure and resolve credit issues, allowing these clients to regain a solid financial foothold.

Many attorneys have joined LSEP through a quid pro quo training program sponsored by the Bar Association of Baltimore City (BABC). BABC offers free tuition to some of its continuing legal education programs in exchange for a participating attorney accepting one or more pro bono cases from LSEP. “A lot of new attorneys are interested in this program because they want to gain the experience, and of course we offer malpractice insurance, mentoring, and if they have any questions of course they can call,” explains Harvin. “One thing I recall about being a new attorney is that I often had a lot of procedural questions. For example, ‘I know the law, but where’s the courthouse?’ or ‘I know the law, but what do I say to the Judge or the Trustee?’ That kind of thing. And we like to encourage our attorneys to contact us, and the more-experienced panel attorneys are more than glad to talk the less-experienced ones.” Especially appealing to new attorneys, this system benefits attorneys and clients alike.

The Bar Association of Baltimore City is particularly proud of the Legal Services to the Elderly Program, which demonstrates the strength and depth of services that can be provided through the joint efforts of the local government and a private-sector, non-profit organization like BABC. LSEP is always interested in new volunteers, be they attorneys, law students, college students or other persons concerned about Baltimore City’s elderly population. If you are interested in volunteering with the program, contact Tracey Harvin at (410) 396-1322.

Lisa Muscara is Director of Volunteer Services for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May, 2005

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