Under The Apple Tree: My Experiences with UCI Law’s Elder Abuse Clinic

Ariela Rutkin-Becker
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

“I thought I’d be sitting under an apple tree now, you know, at this point of my life. And I don’t want to leave the world in this situation that I’m in.”

The quote above was spoken to me on a Friday morning in early November by an 83-year-old woman who stopped by the Elder Abuse Clinic at Central Justice Center for help. She was facing a series of harassing behaviors from her son’s live-in, on-and-off girlfriend that were exacerbating her health issues: hypertension and cancer amongst them. The police had told her on numerous occasions that she needed a restraining order for them to take appropriate actions, and after being sent on a wild goose chase through the courts of Orange County, she found our Clinic.

The Elder Abuse Clinic is a unique partnership between UCI Law, Chapman Law, Legal Aid of Orange County (LASOC), the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, and Judge Kim Hubbard at Central Justice Center. The Clinic’s main focus is on writing declarations for temporary restraining orders (TROs), court orders that help protect people from various forms of abuse. Similar to the Domestic Violence Declarations Project at Lamoreaux Justice Center, students doing pro bono at the Elder Abuse Clinic work with supervising attorneys to identify the issues, provide information to the relief-seeker, and assist in the paperwork moving forward.

Elder abuse is multidimensional, underreported, and a growing problem. It is not just an issue that affects our great-grandparents or our grandparents. For many of us, our parents already fit into the statutory definition of “elder” of 65 years or older. And if we as law students are all lucky, we will hopefully be privileged enough to call ourselves an elder one day as well.

I became involved in elder abuse work because of something that happened to my grandfather, who was my best friend and my hero. As the first-generation son of Eastern European immigrants, my grandfather grew up in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1920’s. He was poor by all traditional measures but rich in family, folklore and tradition. His more ascetic upbringing – coupled with surviving the Great Depression – instilled in my grandfather a no-nonsense view of life. Over the years, he helped our family avoid some disastrous financial decisions by always impressing upon us savvy, sophisticated and smart financial advice.   He was known as a genius by all who came in contact with him: a child prodigy who graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York after skipping a year, a masterful civil engineer who devoted his life to public works projects in Manhattan, a World War II vet who stayed in Japan after the war to help rural provinces repair their water infrastructure.

Towards the end of his life, things started unraveling a bit for this brilliant, incredibly accomplished person. Around the turn of his 92nd year birthday, he started becoming fixated on the “lottery” letters he was receiving in the mail. These sweepstakes companies parade as real “opportunities,” with small print, hidden conditions that even this law student has had trouble deciphering. However, my grandfather got swept up in these soul-sucking businesses. He – always so careful and guarded about personal information – gave away his credit card number to one of them, and it snowballed into him losing tens of thousands of dollars.

As I wised up and I grew up, I realized that these companies all conspired together. They shared his information so that he wasn’t just tracked by one, but by hundreds of them. They all knew my grandfather’s age and the fact that he lived alone, they became aware of his diminishing capacity, and they were working to exploit it for their own gain. I went on a rampage – collecting the hundreds (literally) of pieces of mail that came to his house and still continues to come addressed to him, six months after he passed away. I started educating myself about consumer rights, an area of interest that continues to motivate my coursework in law school. Even before he passed away this past February, I had already committed myself to using my legal skills to fight against these predatory business practices. Side note: The FTC has already started addressing this scam, but it hasn’t amounted to much yet.

So I got involved with elder abuse work through this fairly narrow framework of consumer protection. Thank God what my grandfather lost was only money. During the course of my work this semester with our Elder Abuse Clinic, I have seen elders who have lost much more. We have worked with families who have been torn apart by instances of alleged abuse by one sibling against the elderly parent. Oftentimes this alleged abuse takes place in the context of trust and will negotiations. Oftentimes the elderly parent has been on a rapid decline after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We had two elders living in facilities that seemed substandard. We have assisted 4 elders or “interested parties” in filing their declarations to attempt to receive a temporary restraining order.

Like any work involving violence, this work is complicated and potentially emotional. Many of the people who walk through the clinic doors just need somebody to talk to. It’s their first time telling their story. Even if their issues are out of the scope of our clinic’s work, we can add value by affirmatively listening and providing them with outside resources. And similarly to any work involving violence, abuse occurs across racial and class lines. The commonly-shared struggles and concerns bring people from all different walks of life, from all around Orange County, into the courthouse.

I think one of the reasons why elder abuse is so rarely talked about is that it inherently involves us confronting the tough realities of aging and the terminal nature of our own lives. On this subject, the Japanese author Haruki Marukami wrote that “one of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting, and you have to get used to that reality.” I, similarly, view getting older as a “blessed right,” and the process of aging as an honor. Perhaps that’s part of why I view exploitation of that process – taking advantage of older people – as so particularly dishonorable.

And so the story about the 83-year-old cancer patient has a silver lining. She found such comfort and relief in our Clinic that she took our suggestions about information to gather and began coming back to us. Even though our Clinic operates as a self-help model, with no attorney-client relationship formed, we are establishing enough of a rapport in Orange County that many parties continue to come back and ask us for further information once their case has begun. We are able to help start parties on the journey towards relaxing “under the apple tree,” a sense of solace that we all so badly deserve in our older age. This Clinic is an amazing opportunity for anyone who would like that sense of gratification.