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School of Law alumna receives ‘genius’ grant

Washington, DC - SEPTEMBER 12: MacArthur Fellow Marie-Therese Connolly poses for a portrait at her home and on Pennsylvania Avenue NW on September 13 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)

Marie-Therese Connolly, an alumna of Northeastern University’s School of Law, received a phone call last week that she said changed her life. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had named her one of 22 new MacArthur fellows, a prestigious honor that comes with a $500,000 “genius” award that will help Connolly advance her work to fight elder abuse.

“Hopefully this is a game-changer for the elder justice field,” said Connolly, L’84. “I’m no different than I was last Tuesday and the problem is no different than it was last Tuesday, but now that MacArthur Foundation has deemed this a field of major importance.”

About one in 10 Americans over the age of 60 suffers neglect, abuse or exploitation – most often by their own families or caregivers – and about 96 percent of cases go unreported. More than half of seniors with dementia are affected, Connolly said, and the number of victims continues to climb as a “Baby Boomer” generation begins to retire. But the field is not typically one that is on the public’s radar, often because the victims are often unable to speak out and advocate for themselves.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a J.D. at Northeastern, Connolly went to work at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she was a senior trial counsel and, from 1999 through 2007, was coordinator of the Elder Justice and Nursing Home Initiative. In 2002, she led efforts in the U.S. Senate to draft the Elder Justice Act, a landmark, bipartisan bill that addressed issues of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation but has not yet been fully implemented.

“The more we learn about it, the more we learn how extensive, lethal and costly this issue is,” Connolly said. “It’s a preventable problem. If people think about it, prepare for it and put steps in place to prevent it, this can be stopped.”

In 2008, Connolly earned a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which allowed her to begin working on a book about elder justice. The policy work she pursued at the Department of Justice and in the Senate followed her, so Connolly worked to found the Life Long Justice initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that aims to create an integrated national advocacy effort to prevent, detect and intervene in cases of elder abuse.

Dean Emily Spieler said the School of Law is thrilled for Connolly and her accomplishments, and that her recognition represents the school’s standards of excellence.

“As we tell our students, all lawyers must commit themselves to addressing the needs of society, regardless of their field of practice. Marie-Therese stands out as someone who exemplifies our highest ideals,” Spieler said.

Connolly said her time at Northeastern helped her learn to use law as a tool to advocate causes she felt were critically important.

“I went to law school because it seemed the law was an important tool to fix systems I thought were broken, and Northeastern taught me how to do that,” Connolly said. “Northeastern was really an important place, both in terms of the way it structures the education with co-op and the implicit values that underlie the curriculum. The people there care about the law not as a tool to make as much money as you can but as a tool to do as much good as you can.”

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