SPECIFIC PIONEERING CONTRIBUTIONS
Risa Breckman, MSW, began her career working with women who experience intimate partner violence (IPV) and soon shifted her focus to elder abuse, a problem that was just beginning to be recognized as significant and widespread. For the next 40-plus years, Breckman was at the forefront of what would eventually be known as the elder justice movement: working directly with people who experienced elder abuse, developing innovative responses to elder mistreatment, creating educational materials and forums on elder justice, teaching and mentoring service providers about elder abuse, and serving on advisory boards to strengthen elder justice efforts in New York City (NYC), throughout New York State, and nationally. This portion of Breckman’s career was distinguished not only by exemplary leadership within her chosen profession, but also by interdisciplinary, interorganizational, and cross-sector collaboration to promote elder justice.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of Breckman’s prominence was her participation in the four-member steering committee for the Elder Justice Roadmap, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In this capacity, Breckman guided a process of engaging 750 elder justice stakeholders nationwide: including direct service providers, policy workers, and government officials. She worked with them to develop priorities “critical to understanding and reducing elder abuse and to promoting health, independence, and justice for older adults” – including 121 recommendations across the domains of direct services, education, policy, and research. The culminating Elder Justice Roadmap report, a strategic planning document created “by the field, for the field” and published in 2014, became a critical roadmap for social workers and professionals committed to elder abuse prevention and intervention.
Breckman held appointments as director of social work programs and assistant professor for gerontological social work in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine for more than 20 years. Thanks to this work, countless physicians and social workers are now better prepared to identify and respond to elder abuse, the signs and symptoms of which often manifest in health care settings.
In collaboration with her Weill Cornell colleagues, Breckman codeveloped the Cornell–Penn Interview for Decisional Abilities (IDA), which teaches Adult Protective Services (APS) staff how to gather specific information used to determine clients’ decision-making abilities. The IDA is unique among other screening and assessment tools in that it distinguishes cognition and capacity, maximizing clients’ decision-making ability, even when cognition is compromised.
In 2009, Breckman co-founded the New York City Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) at Weill Cornell Medicine to improve the way professionals, organizations, and systems respond to elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation. The Center provides rapid response mechanisms to quickly address occurrences of elder abuse and offers case consultations, which promote an ageist-free approach to elder justice programs, educating professionals, students, policymakers, and elected officials about elder abuse, and providing structured collaboration with government agencies and nonprofit organizations to develop effective elder justice policy.
Thanks to Breckman’s leadership, as deputy director from 2009 to 2013 and then executive director until her 2021 retirement, NYCEAC became a nationally recognized leader in elder abuse prevention and response. More specifically, a nationally representative telephone survey, for which Breckman was lead investigator, was conducted with “concerned persons” (such as family, friends, and neighbors) who have experienced elder abuse. This inspired NYCEAC to launch the Helpline for Concerned Persons. This first social worker-staffed elder abuse helpline continues to be a nonemergency phone and e-mail-based service that provides supportive counseling, information, and timely referrals to a previously underserved population.
Consistent with her ability to convene people to address elder abuse, Breckman has been instrumental in developing elder abuse multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) in NYC and around the country. In 2012, NYCEAC was one of four partners (the lead being NYS Office for the Aging) involved in one of the first Elder Abuse Prevention Interventions Program grants from the Administration for Community Living (ACL); this grant was used to pilot the enhanced MDT (E-MDT) model, which includes a forensic accountant to address elder financial exploitation, in eight NYS counties. Collectively, Breckman’s MDT work has fostered collaboration among service providers and experts across organizations and sectors, thereby enabling more effective micro- and mezzo-level intervention to address elder abuse.
Breckman is one of five social workers who cofounded the National Network of State Elder Justice Coalitions in 2019 to facilitates connections among, and enhancesthe capacity of, state and Tribal Elder justice coalitions (also known as associations, commissions, councils, networks, partnerships, or task forces). The network currently has 16 members and meets quarterly.
Breckman began working in NYC on the micro level in 1982, focusing initially on IPV and subsequently on elder abuse. In 1992, she began working as a staff psychotherapist and supervisor with the nonprofit Albert Ellis Institute, shifting in 1995 to a long-standing private psychotherapy practice she maintains to the present day. In 1998, Breckman became director of social work programs and professor of gerontological social work in medicine within the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. This work led directly to Breckman’s co-founding of NYCEAC, where she served in various leadership roles from 2009 to 2021.
Over the course of her career, Breckman has been influential on the local, state, and national levels, working within nonprofit and educational settings while collaborating closely with governmental agencies. Among her notable appointments included serving on the advisory board for the National Center on Elder Abuse, an ACL-funded resource center based at USC Keck School of Medicine, and as a board member for ElderAbuse.org, created to understand, prevent, and treat elder abuse through research, direct service, public education, and policy advocacy.
Since her retirement, Breckman has continued her private psychotherapy practice, incorporating cognitive–behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy approaches in her work with adults of all ages. Her practice specialties include trauma, caregiver stress, relationship issues, work-related problems, life transitions, and aging.
Risa Breckman was born on March 6, 1957. She earned her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and psychology from Antioch College (Ohio) in 1978 and her MSW from Adelphi University in 1982. In 1992, Breckman completed a fellowship in cognitive behavioral therapy with the Albert Ellis Institute; in 2014, she participated in the Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders at the Stanford University School of Business.
Breckman lives in NYC. Since her retirement from NYCEAC, she has enjoyed improving her Spanish and spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren
SIGNIFICANT RECOGNITION AND AWARDS
Throughout her career, Breckman has been instrumental in obtaining funding for various initiatives focused on elder abuse. She has also received at least three individual awards:
In 2014, the Be the Evidence Project, National Organization of Forensic Social Work, Long Island University Brooklyn, and Ramapo College of New Jersey awarded the Spirit of Jane Addams Award to Breckman, recognizing her as one of the “social work leaders on the forefront of justice.”
In 2022 Breckman was named inaugural recipient of the Elder Justice Change Agent Award presented by JAS at its 16th Annual NYC Elder Justice Conference, a nationally renowned educational meeting of more than 350 professionals in the field of aging. The award, created to honor “an outstanding individual who has created and expanded existing services and systems in identifying and addressing elder mistreatment,” recognized Breckman as “a visionary in the field of elder mistreatment … a pioneer in the development of professional education around elder justice … [and] an esteemed innovator in building the safety networks necessary to address the needs of this vulnerable and underserved population.”
Later that year, during a two-day collaborative meeting of Weill Cornell Medicine/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s Vulnerable Elder Protection Team (VEPT) and the University of Colorado’s Vulnerable Elder Services, Protection and Advocacy Team (VESPA) that focused on multidisciplinary emergency department (ED) and hospital-based elder mistreatment response, Breckman received a Lifetime Achievement award for her “pioneering and transformative work in the field of elder mistreatment and her pivotal role in the development of ED/hospital elder abuse response models."
Breckman has published approximately 70 publications, many in peer-reviewed journals. In addition to the aforementioned Elder Justice Roadmap and Elder Abuse Multidisciplinary Teams: Planning for the Future reports Breckman coauthored (2014), three publications have been particularly ground-breaking for the social work profession, the elder justice field, or both.