What do Palm Beach, Sarasota, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Naples, and Clark County all have in common? Each of these cities or counties, with their sunny climates and low costs of living, has earned a reputation as a retirement hot-spot. And as fast as these areas attract an inflating elderly population, they also become hot-spots for guardianship abuse.
The New Yorker recently ran a frightening feature on Clark County in Nevada, a state whose older population has risen by nearly 80 percent in the last decade. It told the story of an elderly couple forced from their home by a professional guardian, without warning and under threat of arrest, moved 40 miles to an assisted-living center, and stripped of their civil rights. They had unwittingly become wards of the court. Within minutes, the guardian was in control of all the couple had accumulated over a lifetime, from their automobiles to the clothes on their backs.
Though guardians assume this control for honest reasons in most cases, countless others follow disturbing practices. Across the U.S., guardians control 1.5 million adults with $273 Billion in assets. Of this group, “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” when they never needed it, according to an American Bar Association study. The details of these cases are rarely disclosed, but the motivations behind them are clear: Money.
How Elders Lose Everything Overnight
The woman behind the Clark County case was April Parks, a self-employed guardian of 12 years.
Her routine was the same for some 400 of her past and present clients. After zeroing in on a target, she would file an emergency ex-parte petition, meaning the ward faced a medical emergency warranting immediate, unannounced intervention. She would exaggerate patients’ mental and physical wellbeing to the court, slapping them with conditions like dementia for which they had never received diagnosis. Parks would then remove them from their home as temporary wards of the court, sell their home and belongings without their knowledge or consent, and transfer their money into her own accounts.
In circumstances like these, by the time relatives are informed – as many as several days after a ward’s relocation – the guardianship is finalized and cannot be challenged. If they try to take over the guardianship, family members are dismissed as unsuitable, neglectful, or exploiters. All anyone needs to qualify as a suitable professional guardian, on the other hand, is to pass a course.
Although Nevada guardianship law favors relatives over professionals, the professionals operate under the guise of goodhearted Samaritans to develop close connections with guardianship commissioners, politicians, and doctors. Temporary guardianship granted on an ex-parte basis has become routine, even when it means isolating wards from their families. Guardians then petition to make the guardianship permanent in hearings they prohibit the ward, labeled as too incapacitated, from attending.
The system is “a morass, a total mess,” said Pamela Teaser, director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. “It is unconscionable that we don’t have any data, when you think about the vast power given to a guardian. It is one of society’s most drastic interventions.”
Guardianship an Underestimated Source of Elder Abuse?
Sadly, financial exploitation is only 1 form of this power, and individual guardians are only the beginning.
Elder abuse, which is estimated to affect 10 percent of Americans over 65, can take many forms, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. We already know much of this abuse happens within nursing homes – in 1 of every 3 facilities, in fact – which subject residents to poor care and conditions for their own financial gain. In many cases, these circumstances are fatal. But the New Yorker revealed that nursing homes and even hospitals profit from acting as guardians, too. A quarter of New York guardianship petitions are brought by nursing facilities and hospitals, studies suggest, often as a means to collect on medical bills.
Another underestimated issue is individual guardians’ hand in nursing home abuse, for which the facilities’ staff and management are usually accountable. When wards of the court reach assisted living facilities, it’s the guardians who control their medical treatments and day-to-day living.
In the Clark County case highlighted in the New Yorker, Parks switched the couple’s health insurance and slowly increased their doses of medication. They reached the very state Parks had lied about in the beginning: incapacitation. “They were being overmedicated to the point where they weren’t really there,” said the couple’s daughter. On top of that, their kitchen was understocked and they were prohibited from buying new clothes.
“I reminded ward that she has plenty of clothing in her closet,” Parks wrote in a memo. “I let her know that they are on a tight budget.” For that short conversation, she charged the wards’ estate $180.
Legal Elder Abuse Racket Lining Guardians’ Pockets
As the New Yorker described it, a “capitalist dystopia” – guardians’ willingness to maximize capital at the expense of elders’ lives and wellbeing – is at the heart of it all. But the protection of elders, who are so important to our society, is paramount. Why has so little been done about guardianship abuse?
Apart from relatives, these elders have nobody on their side. Family members of Nevada nursing home residents have taken their complaints to the police, the Bureau of Health Care, the Department of Health Services, and the Nevada Adult Protective Services. Not one agency has wanted to intervene, claiming lack of jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, guardians with political ties have heavy influence over the law. Jared Shafer, regarded the “godfather” of Las Vegas guardians and in control of over 3,000 wards during his career, managed to pass a bill allowing the county to receive interest on guardian-invested money. He has so much influence in the courtroom that, in 1 case, Shafer told the commissioner to close the courtroom when an attorney complained about his client’s missing money. The commissioner immediately complied.
For Parks, courtroom influence came to an end. She was finally chased down and indicted for perjury and theft earlier this year after courts found she had managed wards’ finances without proper approval. Evidence also showed she had regularly visited hospitals and attorneys’ offices to generate leads and gravitated toward wealthier patients. But in general, guardians are rarely prosecuted for exploitation. Frail or dying people simply don’t make good witnesses, said Shafer, when he appeared at a 1990 U.S. congressional hearing as an expert on preventing elder abuse.
“The exploitation of seniors is becoming a real cottage industry right now,” he said. “This is a good business. Seniors are unable to fend for themselves.”