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Guardianships putting thousands of elderly Texans at risk


Documents show they’re losing their rights

Repost from: The Houston Chronicle 

By LISE OLSEN

Updated 11:01 p.m., Thursday, November 3, 2011
 

Under a court-ordered guardianship, 86-year-old widow Helen Hale was plucked from the house she and her husband had built on wooded acreage in Cypress for their retirement and relocated to an unlicensed group home run by a caregiver with a criminal history.

Across Texas, 30,000 to 50,000 disabled and elderly people like Hale have lost the right to decide where they live, to choose a caretaker or to spend their life savings after being declared incapacitated and ordered into guardianships, according to new estimates obtained by the Houston Chronicle from the Texas Office of Court Administration and interviews with probate court officials statewide.

Nationally, the number of people declared “incapacitated” is rapidly increasing as the population ages. And so have reports about mistreatment, neglect and problems involving relatives and non-relatives appointed to protect them, according to warnings from the federal Government Accountability Office.

In August, Hale’s daughter Jane Goings dropped by the group home and found her mother ill.

“I just knew that there was something wrong with her. Her coloring didn’t look right. My mom looked like a limp noodle,” said Goings, who prior to Hale’s 2011 guardianship lived next door to her mother and shared her care with other siblings.

At Goings’ urging, Hale was rushed to a hospital where doctors found dangerously low potassium levels and a urinary tract infection, according to medical records and interviews with her children.

‘The living dead’

In some of the state’s largest counties, like Harris, Travis and Bexar, so many people are in guardianships that each probate judge oversees from 1,500 to 3,000 “wards” of the court. Yet most judges have only a single investigator to check out potential problems.

Across Texas, courts don’t have enough staffto visit wards even once a year. That means, in many places, that no one is guarding the guardians, though some judges recruit volunteers to do so.

“They lose their rights – they’re the living dead,” declared Houston advocate Latifa Ring, who has argued for reforms and pushed for increased oversight by Congress. “There’s a systemic problem in guardianships.”

GAO reports this year and in 2010 warned that many elderly and disabled people – including many veterans – had been exposed to neglect and rip-offs under guardianship.

Family usually steps in

In most Texas cases, relatives serve as unpaid guardians. Statewide, however, many courts are being forced to hire non-relatives or attorneys to oversee assets, care and other personal decisions because the family is unable or unwilling to do so.

Over the last 12 months, Texas judges ordered a total of $5 million in fees paid to guardians, new state data obtained by the Chronicle shows.

Bexar County has an unusually high number of guardianship cases – about 6,000, which is almost as many as Harris County – because so many military members retire to San Antonio, but have no children or relatives nearby, court officials say.

In some guardianship cases, including Hale’s, lawyers get appointed after families fight over the care of an elderly or disabled relative. Those guardians are paid out of the assets of disabled and elderly Texans.

Hale’s first lawyer guardian was Marcia Pevey, the highest-paid guardian in Texas in the last year, data analyzed by the Chronicle shows. From August 2010 to September 2011, Pevey collected more than $200,000 for guardianship services – more than anyone else statewide.

Pevey did not respond to requests for comment for this story. She was ordered to be paid $13,421 in October for acting as guardian for Hale, who receives only $1,700 monthly as a railroad widow.

Hale first ended up in Harris County probate court in February, a few months after the death of her husband Edward “Bunny” Hale, a longtime Southern Pacific Railroad employee.

Pevey was named guardian because of allegations that one of Hale’s sons had substance abuse problems and had failed to properly care for her, and that some of her children owed her money.

New home, guardian

Hale was removed in August from the group home Pevey selected, and now lives in another facility under another lawyer guardian. One of Hale’s six children hopes to regain control over their mother’s guardianship in a case set for next week. Meanwhile, records show that the total fees charged to Hale exceed $26,000.

 

lise.olsen@chron.com

 

Actor Mickey Rooney tells Congress of abuse


Elder abuse

Image by runran via Flickr

“If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney, it can happen to anyone,” the 90-year-old actor said in testimony to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

In court documents, Rooney accused his stepson Christopher Aber of intimidating and bullying him and blocking access to his mail. The documents also alleged Aber deprived Rooney of medications and food.

“My money was taken and misused. When I asked for information, I was told that I couldn’t have any of my own information,” Rooney told the committee. “I was literally left powerless.”

Rooney rose to fame as a child star in the 1930s and 1940s when he made more than a dozen Andy Hardy movies. He appeared frequently alongside Judy Garland and, in his heyday, was one of Hollywood‘s biggest stars, receiving a junior Oscar in 1938.

Rooney continued to work in movies and television into his late 80s, appearing in the 2006 film comedy “Night at the Museum,” among other works.

Rooney told the Senate committee he suffered in silence for years because “I couldn’t muster the courage to seek the help I knew I needed.”

He urged elderly victims to speak out whenever they could.

“Please, for yourself, end the cycle of abuse and do not allow yourself to be silenced any longer,” he said.

Rooney eventually won a court order handing control of his affairs over to a Los Angeles attorney and obtained a restraining order against his stepson, who was ordered by the court to stay at least 100 yards from Rooney and his home.

In testimony to the Senate panel, Rooney suggested Congress enact legislation strengthening the law enforcement response to allegations of elder abuse.

A study by the Government Accountability Office released at the hearing estimated 14 percent of elderly Americans experienced some form of abuse in 2009.

The abuse can range from financial exploitation to physical harm and neglect.

“The actual level of elder abuse may be far worse than estimated because many seniors become socially isolated or feel shame about their situation,” Dr. Mark Lachs, who heads an elder abuse center in New York, said in testimony to the committee.

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