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Project targets elderly in high-conflict families

July 1, 2015
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(IL illustration/Brad Turner)

Although courts do adjudicate cases from families deeply entrenched in disputes and rivalries, they cannot always help some of the most vulnerable members – the elderly relatives.

These high-conflict families have been compared to tornadoes. Their baggage from childhood, long-simmering fights and hurt feelings swirl and keep the conflict going. Accusations are thrown at each other. Sometimes alliances are formed; other times family members cannot even be in the same room.

Concerns and disagreements over the care of an aged parent – Can mom continue living alone? Should dad still be driving? – bring new fuel to the conflict. In some cases, one adult child is saddled with all the caregiving. With no help provided by the other siblings, the caregiver can become overwhelmed and abuse or neglect the parent.

The conflict can become so bad, it spills over into court and the judge has to find the resolution.

“Courts do not want to raise children and do not want to provide care for the elderly,” said Linda Fieldstone, supervisor of family court services for Miami-Dade County, Florida. “They can’t do that; they can’t make family decisions for the elderly. That’s not their role.”

Fieldstone is spearheading a two-year pilot project designed to give judges an option for dealing with high-conflict families. The project will train professionals, including attorneys, to be eldercaring coordinators and then place them in select courts around the country. When a family fight reaches a level where the members cannot work together in mediation, the judge will be able to order them into eldercaring coordination.

Steuben County, Indiana, is one of the test sites, along with courts in Minnesota, Idaho, Ohio and several locations in Florida.

Janet Mitchell, a family law attorney, psychologist and mediator in Fort Wayne, said this option is needed. The advantages of eldercaring coordination are judges will not have to spend as much time handling severely conflicted siblings, and families will get a resolution without having to spend funds on attorney fees and court battles.

Mitchell is one of three people in Indiana working to become an eldercaring coordinator. She recognized early how alternative dispute resolution could be geared toward the needs and issues surrounding senior citizens and became a trained elder mediator in 1992. In 2004, she started the Elder Care Mediation website, which she ran for 10 years.

Mostly, parents just want their children to get along and be a family, Mitchell said. Eldercaring coordination could bring some resolutions to problems which will alleviate the elderly parent’s stress and improve the quality of life by knowing the children are not fighting.

“It’s all idealistic,” Mitchell said, “but it works.”

No help with conflict

The idea for starting an eldercaring coordination program began with Fieldstone. As part of her duties in the Miami courts, she often works with parenting coordinators and sees parents who cannot agree on anything related to their children.

She wondered why a similar option was not available for the elderly who are suffering in high-conflict families. Finding no programs or studies specifically geared to the elderly in desperate family situations, Fieldstone approached the Association for Conflict Resolution’s Elder Section with her idea.

From there, the association established a task force to set the parameters of eldercaring coordination. The Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts developed a similar task force and worked in conjunction with the ACR over a 14-month period.

Legal organizations, social services, and agencies that focus on senior citizens and elder issues joined the ACR Task Force. Both the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging and the Dispute Resolution Section participated.

The task forces have crafted the guidelines for eldercaring coordination, which cover ethics, training for the coordinators and protocols for the courts.

The eldercaring coordination pilot project will begin around the country in September. The coordinators at each site will be assigned to work with high-conflict families to reach decisions on issues like care, living arrangements and transportation. If the siblings and other relatives cannot agree, the coordinator will be able to make the decision.

Families can return to the coordinator instead of running back to court when new disputes arise.

The goal of eldecaring coordination, Fieldstone said, is to reduce the level of conflict so elderly family members are safer and receive better care.

Rural setting

Steuben County became a participant because of Superior Judge William Fee’s connection to the project. He is a former president of the national Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and was a member of the advisory group that oversaw the work of the task forces.

“I was present and there at the beginning when Linda Fieldstone got the brilliant idea of focusing” on elders in high-conflict families, Fee said. “We’ve been there from the beginning. (Steuben County was) not selected so much as invited.”

Fee has been working closely with Steuben Circuit Judge Allen Wheat on the implementation of the pilot project. Families come to the courts because of disagreements, Fee said, and the eldercaring coordinators will engage the siblings and other relatives to reach a better – and probably faster – decision than the court could provide.

Relieving the court’s docket is not the primary reason for agreeing to participate in the project, he said. Rather the top goal is to create a better living environment for the elderly.

“We want the family to be able to maintain the integrity of the family unit,” Fee said.

To Marylyn Ernsberger, starting the pilot in a small, rural county will provide a much-needed benefit for the elderly there since the resources for them are already limited. Ernsberger, a partner at Ernsberger & Helmer P.C. in Angola, will be one of the pilot’s eldercaring coordinators.

In her practice, she often meets with families struggling to find the assistance to help with their aging parents. Services available in metropolitan areas like transportation and kidney dialysis are not as readily available in rural areas. Complicating the situation is that many of the older generation farmed, so their Social Security benefits are for small amounts, leaving them little money to pay for help.

Participating in the pilot will not require Steuben County or the courts to supply funding, Fee said. Families who are ordered into eldercaring coordination will pay the coordinators just as they do in mediation or parenting coordination. However, families unable to pay would be provided the service pro bono.

“My hope is some grant funds could be freed up to help us pay mediators when there are low-income litigants involved,” Fee said.

Looking ahead

During the two-year pilot, the task forces will be surveying the courts, the eldercaring coordinators and the family participants to measure how the program is working. Tweaks and adjustments will be made along the way as needed.

At the end of the pilot, the project will be reassessed and revised. Also, the results will be publicized. Fieldstone believes, based on the response she continues to get from states and professionals interested in eldercaring coordination, the program will continue and expand after the pilot ends.

She is also confident that eldercaring coordination will help the aging members in a family.

“I would venture to say it would improve their lives and the lives of others around them,” Fieldstone said.•

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