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Embracing elder law

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When Jennifer VanderVeen went to her first conference of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys about 10 years ago, things looked a lot different than they do now.

“There were maybe three or four of us younger attorneys under 40,” said VanderVeen, 37, an attorney at Williams Barrett & Wilkowski in Greenwood who recently was appointed to NAELA’s board of directors. “There’s been a real explosion in younger attorneys in this area of law.”

linda-whitton-and-amy-nowaczyk.jpg----credit-valpo-law-15col.jpg Valparaiso University Law School professor Linda Whitton, left, talks with Amy Nowaczyk, who graduated in May and is pursuing a career as an elder law attorney. (Photo courtesy Valparaiso University Law School)

VanderVeen, who also chairs the elder law section of the Indiana State Bar Association, said those early meetings among more experienced lawyers felt intimidating at first. “But once you start talking to people and get involved, it’s a very open group, it’s very easy to be a part of, and you just fit right in,” she said. “It’s the most sharing and helpful group of lawyers you’re going to find.”

Reasons for the increase in young elder law practitioners vary. The aging boomer population and the anticipation of their growing need for legal service may be a factor, but most younger attorneys say they chose the career because they followed their hearts.

“We genuinely love what we do,” said Connie Bauswell, 40, a private practice attorney with offices in Valparaiso and Schererville who in May received a master’s degree in elder law from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. Bauswell thinks she might be the first Hoosier to earn the emerging degree offered by five or fewer law schools.

“Law schools are paying more and more attention to elder law,” Bauswell said. “I think the focus over time will be less about tax planning and more about planning for the best quality of life and getting the best quality of care (people) can get than about dividing up the assets.”

The development of these law school programs has motivated a number of younger lawyers to become elder law practitioners, said David McGuffey, a Georgia attorney who chairs NAELA’s Young/New Lawyers section. McGuffey said the section has grown to 353 members since it was established four years ago.

“We have seen a remarkable change in the demographics,” said McGuffey, who joined the organization as a young attorney. “The median age seems to have dropped.”

Linda Whitton is the Michael and Dianne Swygert Research Fellow and professor at Valparaiso University Law School. Whitton has taught elder law at Valpo for about 20 years and is co-author of the book “Everyday Law for Seniors.”

It’s clear from demand to get into her course that more students are considering a career in elder law.

“We have to cap it at 50, and we usually have 80 students a year who want to get into the class,” Whitton said. “There is a growing interest and certainly my law school has given it preeminence as subject matter in these times.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law also offers courses concentrating in elder law, as does Notre Dame Law School. The IU McKinney School of Law has no concentration course in elder law, according to a spokesperson. Maurer and Notre Dame personnel who could speak about the extent of their schools’ programs or classes could not be reached for comment prior to Indiana Lawyer deadline.

Whitton said her students receive hands-on experience. They go into the field to interview service providers and learn about skilled nursing, agencies and programs that can offer assistance to potential clients, among other things.

As part of the class final project, Whitton creates mock fact scenarios to challenge students to represent the legal needs of a hypothetical client.

“I use elder law as really a template for teaching holistic client representation,” Whitton said. “Your client isn’t a legal problem; your client is a person who lives in the context of a family situation, usually, and a community. You’re talking about a person’s life here.”

At 35, Amy Nowaczyk is a nontraditional student who took Whitton’s specialized course. Nowaczyk graduated from Valpo law in the spring and is preparing to take the bar exam this summer.

A mother of three who also holds a master’s degree in psychology, Nowaczyk became interested in a career in elder law after helping as a paralegal at the private practice of her stepfather, John M. O’Drobinak, in Crown Point. Nowaczyk hopes to broaden the scope of the practice to comprehensive elder law at the firm where she said O’Drobinak has been concentrating in estate planning for 50 years.

“I used to think the law was boring,” she said. “To me, it was just rules and statutes and very dry.” Her perspective changed after she began working with her stepfather and saw connections between law and psychology. Her experience persuaded her to become an elder law attorney.

Clients, she said, “had such a feeling of worry when they came in. They were scared to talk about death and what happens when they pass on. When I would meet with the clients and do signings, 90 percent of the clients when they left would give me a hug and say, ‘thank you.’ I could tell they felt at ease once we finished the process.”

Elder law practitioners say they draw not just on client-relation skills but also a variety of intersecting practices such as estate and probate law, family law and administrative law.

The work may include matters such as simple wills or complex estate planning; crisis situations such as petitioning for guardianship of a wandering relative; or navigating the complexities of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and VA benefits.

“You have to be patient with the system and with your client,” VanderVeen said. “What I can do in an initial meeting for an estate plan for a 40-year-old couple may take me an hour and a half with an 80-year-old.”

The issues facing elder law attorneys have evolved since Whitton taught her first course in 1992. Among the changes is a greater emphasis on arranging for seniors to continue to live at home.

“The climate really is changing because boomers are becoming seniors,” she said. “And boomers have elderly parents they are having to help navigate the issues of where to live and health care and that sort of thing.” Boomers who’ve navigated the process are likelier to be proactive in planning for their own needs, she added.

Whitton remains troubled by what hasn’t changed, such as the widespread mistaken belief that a senior must sell his or her home in order to qualify for Medicaid benefits.

“I really couldn’t tell you where that comes from,” she said in frustration. “That’s a huge misconception.”•


 

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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