As the island’s manamko', or elderly, celebrate Senior Citizens Month, they also on Monday saw the launch of the the Elderly Justice Center.
The former head of the Senior Citizens Division and now Public Health Director Art San Agustin spoke about the years of work to provide seniors who have a weakened family support system the legal services they need.
He said the Elder Justice Center fills the gap in access to legal services for senior citizens.
“These are for the seniors who otherwise probably would not go to a law firm intimidated by the fancy furniture, intimidated by the professional attire,” said San Agustin.
The center, with the support of the Public Defender Services Corp., will provide legal services such as Medicare benefits counseling.
Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio recognized the importance of closing the access gap.
“It provides a place outside of a private legal office, which was the prior situation combined with the division that is assigned to develop services for senior citizens, to have this resource. Here is very important: It is going to help provide access but it's also going to help resolve so many things that are happening with the elderly,” Tenorio said.
He referenced an increase in the number of issues some of the island's manamko' face such as financial abuse.
“And we hear this in our own families or extended families, where there's sometimes financial abuse that emerges. Nana didn't realize that she was signing over the property. She thought she was only allowing them to survey the property. Different things like this presented different problems and this Elder Justice Center is going to do so much to really avoid and resolve those problems,” he said.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero thanked Cathy Siguenza and David Highsmith, two local attorneys who will be stepping up to provide legal services to the elderly.
The center's ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the Castle Mall in Mangilao.
The governor said the Elder Justice Center will help ensure the elderly receive a better quality of life.
“I understand that we are seeing a lot more rise in the senior citizens abuse. I understand we are seeing a lot more rise in social disputes, rise in land dispute, in property disputes and what more than for us as a government to serve our manamko' than to establish this very much-needed center," the governor said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Phillip Carbullido, in his capacity as the chair of the Public Defender Services Corp., shared that getting the project off the ground was preceded by three years of hard work.
“It's going to be a tremendous benefit and we should all be happy and celebrate for our manamko' that we've done a little service to help them in making their way toward the end stage of their life a lot more comfortable and assurances that they are given proper service,” said the chief justice.
He shared his hopes in making the service a long-term commitment. He recalled meeting with Sen. Amanda Shelton and Vice Speaker Tina Muna Barnes regarding Bill 100-36 which was signed into law Monday morning.
The new law allows PDSC access to the resources necessary to fully realize its mandate by providing it the authority to apply for and receive grant funding to provide legal services for the manamko'.
“That gives me hope that there is, there is going to be funds that would be available to make this a long-term commitment,” said the chief justice.
Bill 100-36 signed into law
Shelton said she and the vice speaker introduced the bill since the last legislative term. "And there were lots of different factors at play and today is a very special and eventful day for us to see this come to fruition and for us to be able to see a sustainable future for The Elder Justice Center,” said Shelton.
The governor, in a letter to Speaker Therese Terlaje, recognized the decades of work the Public Defender Service Corp. has provided.
“Over the years, the PDSC has advocated for thousands of our island’s indigent as they faced legal issues in court. But while it has assisted so many as they faced criminal charges, it has struggled to fulfill its other obligation to assist in civil matters,” wrote the governor.