Marie-​​Therese Con­nolly, an alumna of North­eastern University’s School of Law, received a phone call last week that she said changed her life. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion had named her one of 22 new MacArthur fel­lows, a pres­ti­gious honor that comes with a $500,000 “genius” award that will help Con­nolly advance her work to fight elder abuse.

“Hope­fully this is a game-​​changer for the elder jus­tice field,” said Con­nolly, L’84. “I’m no dif­ferent than I was last Tuesday and the problem is no dif­ferent than it was last Tuesday, but now that MacArthur Foun­da­tion has deemed this a field of major impor­tance.”

About one in 10 Amer­i­cans over the age of 60 suf­fers neglect, abuse or exploita­tion – most often by their own fam­i­lies or care­givers – and about 96 per­cent of cases go unre­ported. More than half of seniors with dementia are affected, Con­nolly said, and the number of vic­tims con­tinues to climb as a “Baby Boomer” gen­er­a­tion begins to retire. But the field is not typ­i­cally one that is on the public’s radar, often because the vic­tims are often unable to speak out and advo­cate for them­selves.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and a J.D. at North­eastern, Con­nolly went to work at the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice, where she was a senior trial counsel and, from 1999 through 2007, was coor­di­nator of the Elder Jus­tice and Nursing Home Ini­tia­tive. In 2002, she led efforts in the U.S. Senate to draft the Elder Jus­tice Act, a land­mark, bipar­tisan bill that addressed issues of elder abuse, neglect and exploita­tion but has not yet been fully imple­mented.

“The more we learn about it, the more we learn how exten­sive, lethal and costly this issue is,” Con­nolly said. “It’s a pre­ventable problem. If people think about it, pre­pare for it and put steps in place to pre­vent it, this can be stopped.”

In 2008, Con­nolly earned a fel­low­ship at the Woodrow Wilson Inter­na­tional Center for Scholars, which allowed her to begin working on a book about elder jus­tice. The policy work she pur­sued at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and in the Senate fol­lowed her, so Con­nolly worked to found the Life Long Jus­tice ini­tia­tive, a Wash­ington, D.C.-based orga­ni­za­tion that aims to create an inte­grated national advo­cacy effort to pre­vent, detect and inter­vene in cases of elder abuse.

Dean Emily Spieler said the School of Law is thrilled for Con­nolly and her accom­plish­ments, and that her recog­ni­tion rep­re­sents the school’s stan­dards of excel­lence. 

“As we tell our stu­dents, all lawyers must commit them­selves to addressing the needs of society, regard­less of their field of prac­tice. Marie-​​Therese stands out as someone who exem­pli­fies our highest ideals,” Spieler said.

Con­nolly said her time at North­eastern helped her learn to use law as a tool to advo­cate causes she felt were crit­i­cally impor­tant.

“I went to law school because it seemed the law was an impor­tant tool to fix sys­tems I thought were broken, and North­eastern taught me how to do that,” Con­nolly said. “North­eastern was really an impor­tant place, both in terms of the way it struc­tures the edu­ca­tion with co-​​op and the implicit values that underlie the cur­riculum. The people there care about the law not as a tool to make as much money as you can but as a tool to do as much good as you can.”