Contra Costa’s Pioneering Elder Court Aids Seniors


Judge Joyce Cram

Carol Mathey stands nervously before Judge Joyce Cram in what may be the country’s only Elder Court, pleading for a restraining order against her daughter, who sits grim-faced 10 feet away.

Testifying on a chilly, late-January morning in Martinez, Calif., a blue-collar town east of San Francisco, Mathey says the young woman, a boyfriend and their toddler moved into her mobile home and won’t leave. “She threw my stuff out once before in the rain,” says Mathey, wearing a thin sweatshirt and slacks. “I’ve been living in my car since January 7.”

The 60-something mother, whose gray-streaked brown hair is pulled into a short pony-tail, wipes away tears. “She’s threatening to throw my stuff out again. She yells at me,” she tells the judge.  “I’m sorry, but a woman shouldn’t have to live in terror like this.”

Mathey’s case is one of five restraining order requests Cram hears that morning in the only court of its kind in California, and likely the country. Each Tuesday, people shuffle through metal detectors and into the Spinetta Family Center to reach Cram’s courtroom. Inside, the judge hears criminal cases of alleged elder physical or financial abuse, probate matters, civil cases and restraining order requests, all involving seniors.

Spinetta Family Law Center, Martinez, CA

Although five other counties in the state provide elder court services by combining criminal elder abuse cases and restraining order requests, only this Contra Costa County court has relegated all elder legal issues to one special courtroom. However, the idea may be catching on. The court’s staff has seen a visiting judge from Chicago and have taken its show on the road, giving seminars to other county courts around the state and even to New York.   

Large cheery paintings by school children hang on the courtroom wall.  A sign at the rear of the court tells visitors that equipment is available to aid visitors with trouble hearing the proceedings. Despite the welcoming atmosphere, court proceedings can be intimidating.

But seniors like Mathey don’t have to face their hearings alone. A slender woman with a welcoming smile and a head scarf provides another important benefit to the elders. Tina Olton is a volunteer senior peer counseling helper who guides seniors unfamiliar with the courts through the process. Olton retired from a career as a university financial officer to help organize the counseling in 2008 as part of  the Contra Costa County Health Services, Senior Peer Counseling program.

Olton’s trained counselors meet seniors outside the courtroom to explain what will happen. Later in the day they will make what Olton refers to as a “reassurance call” to see how the seniors are doing. Two of Olton’s volunteers sit with Mathey to support her throughout the hearing as she asks the judge to force her daughter, Ginger Huffman, out of the mobile home.

Huffman gets to present her side, too. She tells the judge that she and her boyfriend agreed to do major renovations to the mobile home in exchange for Mathey paying the $500 monthly lease and allowing them to live there. “We did all this work and she agreed to pay the rent,” Huffman explains. Then her mother stopped paying. She adds that her mother is depressed and takes medication for it, “but not enough. She needs more.”

Huffman claims she put her mother’s belongings outside in plastic bags under a covered porch, not in the rain. She says she can’t afford to move, and can’t get work due to a back injury. Huffman tells the judge “we will probably be living in a shelter” if her mother’s request is granted.

Now, it’s the judge’s turn. Cram points out to Huffman the mobile home lease is in Mathey’s name and it is her home. She orders a one-year restraining order and tells Huffman she must move out and stay 100 yards away from her mother. Huffman interrupts the judge to shout, “So you’re going to make us homeless?”

Cram simply responds, “I am granting the order.” Huffman abruptly stomps out of court; Mathey leaves slowly, in the company of the counselors and in tears.

Olton says the response is not unusual for seniors.  The peer counselors are also concerned with the aftermath of the orders.  In Mathey’s case Olton is concerned about her comment that she couldn’t afford the lease on her home. “I worry about how she is paying bills, if she doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent. If that’s true she may need financial management services. The counselors can hook her up with other agencies and services that may help,” she says.

This court has found an effective way to handle the needs of the growing influx of seniors who may have special mental and physical limitations that require out-of-the-box thinking from courts and judges.  

Regarding Huffman , Olton says, “The emotional abuse on her mother was significant but proving it is tough. A lot of times the judge will ask the elder, ‘are you afraid of him’ and if so, why. She may ask ‘does he get up close in your face and yell.’ We’re learning more about what is thought to be abuse of elders,” she said. 

In an interview a short while later, the judge says it is often very difficult for a parent to come to court seeking a restraining order against a child or grandchild.  Yet over 14 percent of older Americans living outside institutions experienced physical, psychological or financial abuse, according to a 2011 government study.  Given the amount of unreported elder abuse, whether physical, psychological and financial, Cram says, “we probably could see ten times as many restraining order requests.”


Pamela A. MacLean wrote this article for as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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