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Tips for Enhancing Access to Legal Help for Tribal Elders

September 22, 2021

When envisioning the core essentials for aging, adequate healthcare, nutrition services, accessible housing and sufficient income likely come to mind. “Access to legal assistance” should be added to this vital list as it can protect these other essentials.

Advocates who work with older adults know that systems, services and structures are not perfect—many older adults will face barriers to obtaining or preserving core services and supports, threatening their rights and ability to live independently. More often than not, there are legal solutions and interventions that can address these barriers and appeal unjust determinations.

For individuals and communities that have been marginalized and impacted by systemic racism, access to legal help is more critical to overcome institutional bias and provide a fair opportunity to meaningfully participate in our legal system.

Indigenous and tribal communities have experienced racial inequities and historical trauma. While elders are often respected, central members of their tribes, they are not immune to outside forces that have created inequities in aging and many will need legal assistance. And, for people living on tribal land, it can be difficult to assess case jurisdiction, and cases heard in federal court can pose transportation and financial barriers to fully using the legal system.

The COVID-19 pandemic created additional hardship for tribal elders and strained healthcare systems— COVID-19 led to deaths of Native American individuals at twice the rate of White individuals. In light of these factors, aging services and legal assistance advocates should prioritize increasing access to legal assistance for tribal elders.

A recent report provides even more support for such prioritizing. In August, USAging (formerly n4a) released its report, National Title VI Program Survey: Serving Tribal Elders Across the United States (“Title VI Survey Report”). With a grant from the Administration for Community Living (ACL), USAging partnered with Scripps Gerontology Center to conduct a 2020 survey of the Title VI Native American aging programs (see *note at end of article), to identify and understand the needs of Title VI programs and their clients across the country. One of the top unmet needs identified: legal assistance.

Making the Connection

But how can advocates connect more tribal elders to legal assistance? A good first step is to understand and identify programs already doing this work and look for opportunities to collaborate. From there, developing innovative delivery and outreach methods can improve and enhance access to these services.

Landscape of Legal Assistance for Native American Elders

The programs outlined below provide a snapshot of key programs providing targeted services to tribal elders.

Indian Legal Services Programs and Legal Clinics

Indian Legal Services (ILS) programs are stand-alone legal services programs serving individuals. The scope of services and eligibility vary—some may focus on status-related cases and others will work on a broader range of civil cases for tribal members.

ILS programs include California Indian Legal Services, Oklahoma Indian Legal Services, DNA-People’s Legal Services and others. Plus, some law schools have legal clinics that use law students to provide services, focused on legal assistance to tribes.

OAA III-B Legal Assistance

Legal assistance services funded under Title III-B of the Older Americans Act (OAA) are available in every state through contracts with Area Agencies on Aging. These programs focus on preserving the rights of older adults and removing barriers to independent living. They also deliver services to older adults with the greatest economic or social need and within the priority issue areas identified in the Older Americans Act (OAA).

Other Federal Grantees

Organizations may receive funding through grants to provide legal services to tribes, members of tribes or tribal justice systems. These include grants such as the Tribal Civil and Criminal Legal Assistance Program and grants through the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women that provide funding to address abuse and violence. Legal Services Corporation Grants for Basic Field-Native American service areas issues funding for providing legal assistance to Native Americans in specific locations.

Expanding Access and Enhancing Service Delivery

The pandemic added another layer of hardship and challenges for older adults, and there is a substantial need for legal services, including in tribal communities, as identified in the Title VI Survey Report. USAging found that more than 80 percent of Title VI service programs have at least some unmet need for legal assistance. Additionally, only 56 percent of Title VI programs reported that legal assistance is an available service. With this information in mind, advocates should take action to reduce barriers to obtaining legal assistance and work to enhance outreach and delivery systems.

Legal assistance works best when it responds to the needs of the people, leverages the strengths of partners and is delivered with a person-centered and -directed approach. Here are a few recommended strategies for achieving these goals and expanding access.

Developing Strong Partnerships

  • For legal assistance providers seeking to establish a relationship or referral system, reach out to a tribe’s Title VI Program Director. Advocates should be respectful of the structure and systems within each tribe, and not expect a first conversation to be with tribal leadership.
  • Devote time to work with the Title VI Director and other stakeholders to identify areas of unmet legal need. Each tribal community may see different issues—leave assumptions at the door. These conversations serve as a form of asset mapping, and can go a long way to building trust between partners and serve the goal to create programs that people need and want.
  • For Title VI Directors who would like to expand legal assistance to tribal elders, consider reaching out to the legal assistance providers in the region, such as the providers outlined above. Even if the tribe is working with one provider, there may be other organizations that can supplement the work and add additional services. Title VI Directors who are unsure which programs serve their area can use the ElderCare Locator and Legal Services Corporation search features. The National Center on Law & Elder Rights also provides consultations and can help make connections to legal services providers.

Identifying and Addressing Legal Needs

  • The Title VI Survey Report identified elder abuse, in-home help and supportive services for grandparents raising grandchildren as additional unmet needs. Legal assistance can help address these needs. Also estate planning remains a critical need to ensure proper administration of estates that include Indian status land.
  • Elder abuse remains an underreported and underserved issue. In the Title VI Survey Report, 29 percent of program directors reported having an elder abuse task force, coalition or protection team, but the list of members of the teams did not include legal assistance. Adding legal assistance to these teams could contribute to access to legal help and expand remedies available to victims.

No “One-Size-Fits-All” Delivery System

  • Some programs have developed creative ways to provide legal help in areas where transportation may be limited and services areas are large. Montana Legal Services Association and Montana State University partnered to leverage technology to help tribal members create wills with the “Will-in-a-Box” online program. The drive-through legal clinics implemented by Oklahoma Indian Legal Services have brought legal assistance to community centers throughout the state and offer a safe way to provide help in the pandemic.
  • Identify existing programs and services where legal assistance can be an “add-on.” Alaska Legal Services Corporation has developed a network of medical-legal partnerships. Healthcare centers are in far-reaching areas of the state and tribal healthcare facilities continue to be a core partner of Title VI programs. Similarly, Title VI congregate meal sites might be a good place for legal services programs to hold office hours or clinics.

Cultural Awareness in Communications

  • In addition to considering the important issue of language access, how legal advocates communicate is critical for gaining buy-in and trust. Take a look at flyers, brochures and screening tools with an eye for proper terminology and tone. The National Center on Elder Abuse resource provides a good example, suggesting using the terms “being disrespected” or “bothered” instead of “abuse” when discussing elder abuse with tribal elders. The National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative also has useful information for developing elder abuse interventions and crafting outreach.

These are some of the many strategies advocates can explore to increase access to justice and legal help for tribal elders. As older adults of color continue to experience the effects of COVID-19 and the systemic inequities in systems and structures, it is crucial that advocates use partnerships, think creatively and prioritize cultural humility to reduce barriers to legal assistance for communities with the greatest need.

* The Older Americans Act Title VI, establishes programs for nutrition, supportive services, and caregiver services for Native Americans (American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians), funded through ACL. ACL grants provide additional services to support healthy and independent living.

**This piece was originally published on the American Society on Aging’s Generations Blog.

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