An Interview with Catherine Strode
On July 1, a state law went into effect making it a class 6 felony to unlawfully confine an at-risk adult and a class 1 misdemeanor to abandon an at-risk adult. This law, enacting penalties for persons convicted of at-risk adult abuse crimes, was the result of hard-fought lobbying efforts of advocates within the Colorado disability community. Leading their fight for legislative change was Denver’s Director of Elder and At-Risk Protection, Jane Walsh. She says this law is a tool to get more abuse crimes reported and prosecuted.
Jane Walsh has been prosecuting crimes against at-risk adults since coming to the United States in 2007. Originally from Scotland, she has practiced law under three different legal systems to defend her passion. That passion is fighting inequities for vulnerable populations and protecting their right to live full and respectful lives.
How did you come to practice in three different legal systems?
In Scotland, you can start to train as a lawyer when you’re 18. That’s exactly what I did. I originally qualified as an attorney in the 1980’s. I practiced there for a short time and then I moved to England. I had to requalify because the Scottish and English legal systems are separate and quite different. I practiced there for about 20 years. I was finding my niche, learning a lot about how older adults with cognitive impairments and also people with disabilities were treated by the system and how little redress there was. Family circumstances brought me to the United States (USA) in 2007. I sat for the bar the same year I arrived. By the time you come to work in your third legal system, you have a lot of overview of how things are done elsewhere.
What brought you to prosecuting crimes against individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD)?
I wanted to be a prosecutor here because the system in the USA is very robust for the defendant. It is more robust than in Britain. I wanted to increase awareness of inequity.
I believe strongly in justice for all. Justice for all is not something you can take lightly. Just like in any other area of life, it will be the downtrodden who are the casualties of a system that doesn’t really mindfully try to protect vulnerable victims. We need to fight for people who are being abused. This is not a third world country. This is a first world country, so all of the citizens in this country deserve to be supported and not be mistreated.
How did your work in the states evolve?
My first real job in the USA was as a Deputy District Attorney in Boulder County. I developed a Felony Unit prosecuting crimes against seniors and crimes against people with disabilities. I worked on a bill to expand the I/DD hearsay exception because I had two cases at the same time, both involving victims with I/DD. In both, forensic interviews had taken place. The statute would permit me to use the forensic interview in the sex crime case but it would not permit me to use the forensic interviews in the abuse case. I thought, ‘We have to change that.’ It seemed like we needed justice there.
What does your work focus on now?
I was hired in January of 2018, specifically because Denver needed to create a Unit that was addressing crimes against at-risk populations in Colorado. I’m out in the community training people on what they need to do in regards to mandatory reporting and how to recognize abuse of at-risk persons. I’m also talking to the older residents of Denver on how to protect themselves from identity theft and fraud. A lot of these crimes are not going to be reported by the victims themselves. All of the people around the individual have to make a mandatory report. That report comes into the police department and the police detectives call me. We talk about the case facts and decide if the case is appropriate for charging or not.
What kind of abuse is most prevalent in the community of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities?
For the I/DD community, we see physical abuse, neglect, sometimes financial exploitation. There might be people living independently in the community who have criminals living with them, or exploiting them, or intimidating them. Within the female population, there is a huge problem with sexual assault. I don’t think we have fully addressed that; however, I think that is going to be the area which helps this become more mainstream for prosecutors because those cases are very serious. They are actually prosecuted at a much higher felony level than our neglect cases. I think it will be the sex crime cases that bring this issue into mainstream prosecution.
What do you consider to be your major accomplishments in the Denver unit?
I wanted to criminalize abandonment of an at-risk person and confinement of an at-risk person. I can’t bear the idea we have host homes where people are being imprisoned. I’m excited we got the change in the law. We reached a great compromise with that legislation and I think it is going to be useful. I’d like there to be much stronger laws, but getting something as a felony on the books is tough. We did that. It’s a deterrent. It’s a tool that we can use. I think that is one of the really big things that has happened this year.
What are your goals for the Denver Unit going forward?
My goal is to continue to improve community relationships so we can make the providers aware we’re here. With confinement, we want to know about it if it’s happening. People can certainly feel free to call us directly if they believe it’s going on and we can tell them what they need to do.
Denver DA Hotline to Report Abuse 720-913-9179
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.