Lawyer at Forefront of Fight Against Elder Abuse Wins MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

Marie-Therese Connolly, a former Department of Justice lawyer who has devoted her career to combating elder abuse, and who was the main architect of the groundbreaking Elder Justice Act passed by Congress last year, is among this year's (2011) winners of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant."

In issuing the award, the MacArthur Foundation said Connolly, 54, "draws on a blend of legal, policy, and legislative skills to combat the largely hidden but immense problem of elder abuse and mistreatment." 

“I see her as one of the major leading figures in the development of a broader social movement to address elder abuse,” said Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the Department of Health and Human Services. “People who work in the field of elder abuse feel like we’re two or three decades behind the work we did in this country to address domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.”skills to combat the largely hidden but immense problem of elder abuse and mistreatment."

By some estimates there are 5 million victims of elder abuse each year in the United States and as many as 96 percent of these cases go unreported.  

When she first looked into the matter of elder abuse as a Justice Department lawyer, Connolly says she found it "astounding that the problem was so invisible and it affected so many people."   

When nursing home abuse scandals broke during the Clinton administration, Connolly was named director of the newly formed Elder Justice and Nursing Home Initiative at the Department of Justice.  There, she developed new legal and investigative strategies that overcame loopholes in federal statutes and led to successful prosecution of cases of abuse and neglect in nursing homes.

"Recognizing that the vast human and economic costs of elder abuse cannot be solved by prosecutions alone," the Foundation wrote, "Connolly was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the Elder Justice Act, the first piece of federal legislation to address the issue specifically."  In a video interview produced by the Foundation, Connolly notes that Congress has not yet provided funds to actually implement the Elder Justice Act.

Connolly left the Justice Department in 2007 to “start writing and talking about these issues in ways that wouldn’t have been appropriate if I was a federal employee,” she told the Washington Post.

Connolly has founded a nonprofit organization, Life Long Justice, dedicated to helping fight elder abuse, and is also working on a book on the subject.  The Life Long Justice Web site notes that roughly one in ten people over 60 living at home are victims of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation; that nearly half of people with dementia at home are abused or neglected by their caregivers; and that between 50 and 90 percent of nursing homes are so understaffed that residents are harmed.