In a recent article published by The New Yorker, the author chronicles the drastic intrusion on an elderly couples’ life and rights by a system of private guardianship intended to generate wealth rather than promote the autonomy of capable older adults.
The article tells the story of Ruby and Rennie North, a couple married for 57 years, who were unexpectedly taken from their home at an adult living facility by an individual who claimed to be their court appointed guardian. Ruby was 66 years of age and Rennie was 68 years of age when they were taken to Lakeview Terrace, an assisted-living facility without the knowledge of their only daughter.
The woman who came to their door was named April Parks and she introduced herself as the owner of the company ‘A Private Professional Guardian.’ They were advised to immediately gather their things, or else the police would be called. The confused couple did as they were told and left with Ms. Parks.
Unbeknownst to the Norths, Ms. Parks filed an emergency ex-parte motion before a judge, alleging that the Norths posed a “substantial risk for mismanagement of medications, financial loss and physical harm” on the basis of minimal (if any) relevant medical evidence. They then became temporary wards of the court.
Neither Rudy nor Rennie had undergone any cognitive assessments and they had never been diagnosed with dementia. Rudy often spent his time reading the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Freud or Nietzche and Rennie enjoyed reading romance novels.
Julie Belshe, the couple’s only daughter, went to visit her parents like she did almost every day to find that they were not there. As days went by and Julie still had not managed to reach her parents, she called local hospitals to see if they had been in an accident and called their landlord to visit the house. Finally, on one of her next visits to her parents’ home, she found a note stating, “In case of emergency, contact guardian April Parks.” Ms. Parks told Julie over the phone that her parents were taken to an assisted living facility and that it was legal that they were taken from their home.
Julie found her parents at the facility, in a small room with a kitchenette. Both of her parents were wearing Medical-alert buttons. They had no idea where the court order was or why or how Ms. Parks had targeted them as wards. Julie acknowledged that while her parents needed a few hours of support each day, she had never questioned their ability to live alone.
Ms. Parks advised Julie that she was part of the “sandwich generation” in that it would be too overwhelming for her to care for her children and her parents simultaneously.
Ms. Parks charged by the hour for the time she spent on the Norths case, and the court placed no limit on her fees so long as they appeared reasonable. A month after uprooting the couple from their home, Ms. Parks petitioned to make the guardianship permanent. She hired a lawyer who was paid for by the Norths’ estate, who appeared before Jon Norheim, a lawyer and the Clark County guardianship commissioner, who works under the supervision of a judge but whose orders have the weight of a formal ruling. The Norths were not represented by counsel. After a ten minute hearing, Norheim ordered that the Norths become permanent wards of the court.
Soon after the hearing, Ms. Parks arranged to have most of the Norths’ cherished belongings sold.
When the Norths were removed from their home, they joined nearly nine thousand adult wards in the Las Vegas Valley. The author explains that in Nevada, as in many states, anyone can become a guardian by taking a course, as long as he or she has not been convicted of a felony or recently declared bankruptcy.
The story of the Norths draws attention to the serious impacts of guardianship on an individual’s rights and freedoms. The article explains that in a study by the American Bar Association, it found that “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” when they no longer need it, or never did. Notably, guardianship is often permanent and leaves no way out.
Rudy spoke with other residents of Lakeview Terrace, and learned that ten other wards of Ms. Parks lived there. They all shared in experiences of how they were deprived of their own property and independence by Ms. Parks. Specifically, Ms. Parks refused Rennie’s request for more clothes and instead told her that they were on a tight budget. However, she charged the Norths $180 for the conversation.
Overall, there was a common thread to the stories of the other wards of Ms. Parks, namely they were abruptly prohibited from exercising their own autonomy on the basis of murky rationales. Specifically, oftentimes it appeared that the opinions of the other wards and the evidence of family members were ignored and minimal (if any) medical evidence was adduced to support the order that would significantly impair these older adults’ rights. Ms. Parks was not the only guardian bringing these ex-parte petitions for temporary guardianship. Rather, the author notes that hundreds of cases followed the same pattern.
In her first year at Lakeview Terrace, Rennie gained 60 pounds and began seeing new doctors arranged for by Ms. Parks. They prescribed Valium, Prozac, a sedative, and Fentanyl and the doses steadily increased. Rudy was prescribed oxycodone and Valium for his hip pain. Julie explained that she found her parents overmedicated to the point where they weren’t really there.
A new director was hired at Lakeview Terrace. She resisted Ms. Parks’ orders that families not be informed of medical information regarding her wards, so Ms. Parks began arranging for the immediate removal of her wards. The Norths were subsequently told that they were leaving Lakeview Terrace and they were given no time to say goodbye to the friends they had made there. When Julie tried to visit her parents at their new residence, Ms. Parks called the police, who said that if she returned she would be arrested.
Julie reached out to a local newspaper and urged them to write about the abuse her parents suffered at the hands of the Clark County guardians. Two months after the article was published, the review-journal ran an investigation on the guardians entitled “Clark County’s Private Guardians May Protect—Or Just Steal and Abuse”. Local journalists then sat in the courtroom when the Norths appeared before Norheim to discuss their finances. Norheim unconventionally announced that Ms. Parks was suspended as the Norths’ guardian. This was the first time she was ever removed from a case for misconduct.
Ms. Parks, amongst others who worked alongside her, was indicted for perjury and theft, among other changes. It was discovered that she had secured contracts with six medical facilities and had even gone as far as to identify doctors with blank certificates and told them exactly what to write on them in order for their patients to become her wards. She appeared to gravitate towards patients who had considerable assets.
The author chronicles the ongoing difficulties in bringing cases of elder abuse before the court. No judges have lost their jobs since Ms. Parks’ indictment and Norheim was transferred from guardianship court to dependency court, where he oversees cases involving abused and neglected children.
The Norths now live in what used to be Julie’s home office. All of their money was spent on Ms. Parks’ various fees and their living expenses (which doubled after they became wards). While they have very few of their possessions, Julie did manage to retrieve some of their cherished belongings that were kept from them by Ms. Parks, including drawings made by her deceased brother. Julie found her parents’ belongings in a garbage bag on the driveway of Caring Transitions, the company that Ms. Parks used to move her wards’ belongings from their homes. The Norths also reconnected with one of their friends from Lakeview Terrace, who was also a ward of Ms. Parks and was now living on his own.
The article provides an enlightening tale of the system which enables many vulnerable older adults to lose their constitutional rights on the basis of minimal or no supporting evidence.