Pamela A. MacLean
Carol Mathey stands nervously before Judge Joyce Cram in what may be the
country's only Elder Court, pleading for a restraining order against her
daughter, who sits grim-faced 10 feet away.
Testifying on a chilly, late-January morning in Martinez, Calif., a
blue-collar town east of San Francisco, Mathey says the young woman, a boyfriend
and their toddler moved into her mobile home and won't leave. "She threw my
stuff out once before in the rain," says Mathey, wearing a thin sweatshirt
and slacks. "I've been living in my car since January 7."
The 60-something mother, whose gray-streaked brown hair is pulled into a
short pony-tail, wipes away tears. "She's threatening to throw my stuff out
again. She yells at me," she tells the judge. "I'm sorry, but a
woman shouldn't have to live in terror like this."
Mathey's case is one of five restraining order requests Cram hears that
morning in the only court of its kind in California, and likely the country.
Each Tuesday, people shuffle through metal detectors and into the Spinetta
Family Center to reach Cram's courtroom. Inside, the judge hears criminal cases
of alleged elder physical or financial abuse, probate matters, civil cases and
restraining order requests, all involving seniors.
Although five other counties in the state provide elder court services by
combining criminal elder abuse cases and restraining order requests, only this
Contra Costa County court has relegated all elder legal issues to one special
courtroom. However, the idea may be catching on. The court's staff has seen a
visiting judge from Chicago and have taken its show on the road, giving seminars
to other county courts around the state and even to New York.
Large cheery paintings by school children hang on the courtroom wall. A
sign at the rear of the court tells visitors that equipment is available to aid
visitors with trouble hearing the proceedings. Despite the welcoming atmosphere,
court proceedings can be intimidating.
But seniors like Mathey don't have to face their hearings alone. A slender
woman with a welcoming smile and a head scarf provides another important benefit
to the elders. Tina Olton is a volunteer senior peer counseling helper who
guides seniors unfamiliar with the courts through the process. Olton retired
from a career as a university financial officer to help organize the counseling
in 2008 as part of the Contra Costa County Health Services, Senior Peer
Olton's trained counselors meet seniors outside the courtroom to explain what
will happen. Later in the day they will make what Olton refers to as a
"reassurance call" to see how the seniors are doing. Two of
Olton's volunteers sit with Mathey to support her throughout the hearing as she
asks the judge to force her daughter, Ginger Huffman, out of the mobile home.
Huffman gets to present her side, too. She tells the judge that she and her
boyfriend agreed to do major renovations to the mobile home in exchange for
Mathey paying the $500 monthly lease and allowing them to live there. "We
did all this work and she agreed to pay the rent," Huffman explains. Then
her mother stopped paying. She adds that her mother is depressed and takes
medication for it, "but not enough. She needs more."
Huffman claims she put her mother's belongings outside in plastic bags under
a covered porch, not in the rain. She says she can't afford to move, and can't
get work due to a back injury. Huffman tells the judge "we will probably be
living in a shelter" if her mother's request is granted.
Now, it's the judge's turn. Cram points out to Huffman the mobile home lease
is in Mathey's name and it is her home. She orders a one-year restraining order
and tells Huffman she must move out and stay 100 yards away from her mother.
Huffman interrupts the judge to shout, "So you're going to make us
Judge Joyce Cram
Cram simply responds, "I am granting the order." Huffman abruptly
stomps out of court; Mathey leaves slowly, in the company of the counselors and
Olton says the response is not unusual for seniors. The peer counselors
are also concerned with the aftermath of the orders. In Mathey's case
Olton is concerned about her comment that she couldn't afford the lease on her
home. "I worry about how she is paying bills, if she doesn't have enough
money to pay the rent. If that's true she may need financial management
services. The counselors can hook her up with other agencies and services that
may help," she says.
As courts search for effective ways to handle the needs of the growing
influx of seniors who may have special mental and physical limitations the very
definition of some mental disorders affecting elders will be changing. (See
Regarding Huffman , Olton says, "The emotional abuse on her mother was
significant but proving it is tough. A lot of times the judge will ask the
elder, 'are you afraid of him' and if so, why. She may ask 'does he get up close
in your face and yell.' We're learning more about what is thought to be abuse of
elders," she said.
In an interview a short while later, the judge says it is often very
difficult for a parent to come to court seeking a restraining order against a
child or grandchild. Yet over 14 percent of older Americans living outside
institutions experienced physical, psychological or financial abuse, according
to a 2011 government study. Given the amount of unreported elder abuse,
whether physical, psychological and financial, Cram says, "we probably
could see ten times as many restraining order requests."
See also, PART 1 - New
PART 2 - One
PART 3 - Psychiatric
Drug Misuse on Elders
PART 4 - New
Pamela A. MacLean wrote this article for RedwoodAge.com
as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a
project of New
America Media and the Gerontological
Society of America.