Skip to content

‘Genius’ alumna advocates for elder-abuse reform

Abuse is endemic among the nation’s senior population, with a large percentage of older Americans suffering from often-unreported cases of abuse, neglect, or exploitation, according to School of Law alumna Marie-Therese Connolly. And with the number of Americans entering their golden years about to skyrocket as the baby boom generation ages, Connolly is leading the charge to protect one of society’s most vulnerable cohorts.

“Elder abuse topples over otherwise autonomous people’s lives,” said Connolly, a 1984 law graduate who in 2011 was awarded a Genius Grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “The trauma is so depleting that they often don’t have the ability or the time to recover the way younger people do.”

Connolly is back at Northeastern this week through the Daynard Distinguished Visiting Fellows Program, which brings notable practitioners of public-interest law to campus for a three-day visit. Connolly delivered a lecture to students and faculty on Monday and will participate in a roundtable discussion on elder abuse on Wednesday at noon in 240 Dockser Hall.

Richard Daynard, center, a University Distinguished Professor of Law, and his wife, Carol Iskois Daynard, support the Daynard Distinguished Visiting Fellows Program. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The biannual series was established in 2004 and is supported by Richard Daynard, University Distinguished Professor of Law, and his wife, Carol Iskois Daynard. In October, the series featured Leslye Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project.

Connolly, who is director of the Life Long Justice initiative at the Appleseed Foundation and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said elder abuse is a growing problem that lacks a cohesive infrastructure for advocacy. Without strong organizations working to combat the issue, it is difficult to frame a national conversation, draw academic attention, or craft meaningful solutions, she explained.

Her proposed Elder Justice Act—which was considered by Congress five times before a limited version was enacted in 2010—is modeled after 1974’s Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and 1994’s Violence Against Women Act, both pieces of legislation whose impact still resonates strongly today.

Connolly said law students can approach the issue of elder abuse from myriad angles, working anywhere from within grassroots organizations to posts at the highest level of federal government. Because most Americans do not consider elder abuse to be a personal issue, the cause needs legal professionals to serve as advocates who can influence change.

“The target audience is not just old people—we have to reach everyone,” Connolly said. “These are issues that impact your parents or your grandparents or somebody else that you know and care about.”

Connolly said Northeastern was the perfect place for her to hone her skills and foster an advocacy-focused mindset.

“The way Northeastern went about education was the best—and maybe the only—way I could learn about the law,” Connolly said. “Northeastern is full of people like us who want to use the law to make real change … and it helps us to buff out those rough edges and get to work.”