Exploitation, racketeering, theft, and perjury: court-appointed guardians are building empires on senior abuse

“It’s unfortunate, but old people fall.”

These are the words of Barbara Andruccioli, who worked as a guardian and conservator of an elderly couple in the suburbs of Detroit.

The callousness in Ms. Andruccioli’s reply to the news that the two people she was charged to care for had been experiencing frequent fall is emblematic of the cruelty of court-appointed guardians for elderly across the country.

Ms. Andruccioli also allowed the couple over whom she was in charge to sleep in their own urine, according to WXYZ TV in Detroit.

That loss of dignity—indeed, of humanity—is, sadly, common for elderly people who are taken from the care of their children and other relatives and legally confined to the inadequate care of so-called guardians. Anyone over the age of 60 must know their rights, and the legal system must work to reform to prevent these tragedies from continuing.

In theory, elderly people are placed in the care of a guardian as a way of protecting their health and their finances. Most guardians are private citizens with no prior background in elder care. One would think this would occur when a vulnerable person is without loved ones to care from them. But that is where the crucial difference between theory and practice comes in.

In the case of Milan and Janet Kapp, the elderly couple handed over to Ms. Andruccioli, they had daughter taking care of them, with two other children living nearby. Often, seniors with very active relatives who take regular care of them are yanked from their homes. They may be placed in assisted-living facilities, or elsewhere, and are all too often cruelly neglected.

These people are deemed unfit to handle their finances, but what is worse, their families lose legal authority to help, and often the person’s assets are sold to pay for their care–and to provide a profit for the guardian.

Picture it: an elderly couple being ushered out of their home with meager bags holding a fraction of their belongings, then driven to a facility for the elderly, while the stranger who’d dragged them away under threat of taking them to respite care would make decisions on their healthcare.

A well-known story of particular abuse was chronicled in The New Yorker last fall. Rudy and Rennie North lived in a retirement community in Las Vegas, complete with a view of the golf course. Their daughter, Julie, lived just minutes away and visited them almost daily. They also received the care of a nurse who came daily, which was beneficial and necessary for Rennie’s neuropathy.

The Norths woke up one morning and had breakfast with no reason to suspect anything was amiss. With no warning, a local—now notorious—guardian named April Parks entered the apartment with a few co-workers.

Without the Norths knowing it, Parks had gone to court to obtain guardianship over the two, arguing that they were mentally unfit to take their medications properly, an argument that ignored their nurse and visitations from Julie. While it sounds absurd, the court did what it does throughout the nation, which was to grant the guardianship, thus opening aging adults to the indignity of a stranger making the most basic decisions in their lives for them.

Picture it: an elderly couple being ushered out of their home with meager bags holding a fraction of their belongings, then driven to a facility for the elderly, while the stranger who’d dragged them away under threat of taking them to respite care would make decisions on their healthcare.

This is something none of us thinks will ever happen to us or our loved ones. We take for granted a measure of freedom—that’s what we work for. What people fear, to some extent, is the sticky matter of having to put their parents in an assisted-living facility, perhaps doing so in the face of tears or of pleas to the let their parents stay at home.

What probate guardianship represents is much worse, since it dislocates bewildered seniors, treating them like property. Once the wards have been forcibly relocated into sub-par housing, with their family legally barred from visiting except at designated times, they are neglected by the guardian, who initially posed as being concerned for their welfare.

For example, Milan and Janet Kapp, in addition to gaining no sympathy for their frequent falls, also had to live without wheelchair ramps outside their home, where they still lived after having been classified as wards.

The request for the accommodation was made to a new guardian, who took over after the resignation of the aforementioned Andruccioli, who buckled under the shame of an evidentiary hearing that was made by Douglas Kuthy, attorney for the Kapp’s daughter. Kuthy told WXYZ that a series of e-mails requesting the ramps that would allow the Kapps to leave home went unanswered by the court-appointed guardian.

While the callous and inhumane attitudes of Andruccioli, Parks, and guardians across the country, are shocking, they are rooted in the motives of these guardians.

That motive is profit.

One of the chief ways in which these sham-guardians enrich themselves is by billing obscene amounts for their services.

As an example, Andruccioli charged $245/hour, while her staffers charged up to $165/hour. These and similar fees charged by various guardians, are expected in return for their violating their wards and their families, for their making decisions counter to the will of everyone involved, and for their often greatly endangering the very lives of the seniors they exploit. All of this is court sanctioned.

But there’s a second way these predators line their pockets. As allowed by courts, these guardians sell the assets of the people they victimize. In the case of the Norths in their sunny Vegas apartment, a crew of scavengers trudged in after Parks, just minutes after the guardian had whisked the couple away.

These people stole from the Norths not only valuable artwork, but paintings made by their son. They sold Rudy’s Chrysler for less than $8,000. Parks put the North’s savings in an account in her name.

Assuming guardianship over wealthy seniors, is, then, a business model. Those engaged in it have no interest in any aspect of senior care. Rather, they are glorified burglars, casing homes, salivating over riches inside, and hatching schemes to get those riches.

People such as Parks–and her former rival, the notorious Nevada guardian Jared Shafer—depend on cronyism with one or more guardianship commissioner, who will green-light their thefts. For example, Parks was granted guardianship over the Norths ex parte, meaning with there was no requirement that anyone—not the Norths, nor their members–be present.

It should be clear that inadequate laws—or laws made to promote corruption—are a major part of the problem here. As with many cases of opportunists breezing in and benefitting from their knowledge–and in the case of Shafer—the actual crafting of obscure laws, one problem is that people are just unaware that any of this can happen.

To bring closure to these horror stories, they did have endings with some measure of justice. This past November, the Norths were liberated from the ill-intentioned guardianship of Parks, which Rudy described as a kidnapping. They were awarded $8.3 million in damages.

Parks, along with her team, was indicted on more than 200 counts of exploitation, racketeering, theft, and perjury. The charges apply to crimes committed to more than 150 victims.

As for Andruccioli, she was fired by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, meaning her racket as an estate thief is over.

Let’s hope that guardians throughout the country are aware of the very real consequences faced by their crooked colleagues.

People learning about these horrors may wonder how likely it is to happen to them or to their parents or other loved ones. While stories about terrible examples of guardianship have recently come from Nevada, it’s a national issue. It’s true that less populous areas will have less guardians, and that areas with higher concentrations of seniors have too many of these exploiters. They are on the lookout for wealthy seniors with estates that make their crimes worthwhile.

The biggest warning sign is a potential guardian going to a judge to get permission for guardianship. Guardianships should arise due to a real need, such as complaints of poor care made by the potential ward, reported by neighbors, etc. In this case, you may find a guardian who has legitimate concern about the well-being of seniors. However, guardianship by a probate guardian is problematic in any circumstance.

That can be due to the very high fees charged and the generally disconnected nature of the guardian. It can be the case that if the guardian sells assets of the ward, they may illegally take some of the profits for themselves. In fact, they sometimes sell large items such as cars to a partner at low prices, report that low price to the courts, and then have their partner re-sell the item to someone else and get a tidy profit.

A lot of what is driving the abuse of guardianship powers is the way the system is set up and run. First off, the requirements for becoming a guardian are minimal. Some lawyers or government employees cynically identify opportunities for exploitation. Some entrepreneurs have the same motivations.

While information on the guardianship process can often be found on a state’s web page, information on background checks and other screening processes for guardians is shadowy.

A recent Huffington Post article cited a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying it was impossible to find any entity that provided “comprehensive information on this issue.” This means that those guardians who may feel they are helping their wards may have a hard time acquiring the right philosophy to do their work with the right compassion and stamina. No one holds guardians to standards, except the families, who are relatively powerless.

It’s also important to know that no limits are placed on the number of wards a guardian can have. While the jail-bound Parks had a roster in the hundreds, that is, fortunately, a bit extreme. The Huffington Post tells us that in Virginia, there are, on average, 20 wards per guardian, while it’s 40 to 1 in Florida. How can a guardian attempting to oversee so many elderly people be a better situation than their children or the staff at an assisted-living facility doing so?

Another condition that creates a safe environment for probate guardians is corruption at the local level, which can include judges or probate commissioners who are essentially co-conspirators with guardians. A good example is Jon Norheim, who is notorious in Nevada, and whose many callous and sarcastic remarks at the expense of wards or their families are well documented in the New Yorker article. He presided over many cases of Parks’, as well as those of Jared Shafer, an infamously aggressive and unscrupulous guardian.

In a 2013 hearing in a case involving Shafer, the attorney for Shafer’s ward claimed that the ward’s bank account was empty, with no records to show where the funds had gone. Shafer, who, like many guardians, is not a lawyer, asked Norheim to close the court. Norheim—not a judge—complied, meaning that everyone but the ward’s attorney and Norheim had to leave, unable to hear what came next.

The fact that probate guardianship has a Wild West quality is depressing. Yet, it also offers a ray of hope, since it indicates room for legislative remedies to much of what is wrong with the system. Laws could be passed to install stricter requirements for potential guardians; this could include requiring guardians to be government employees, who’d have no profit motive; legislation could limit the number of cases heard by a commissioner or judge and provide greater oversight over their rulings; laws could strictly limit the number of wards a guardian could have, and could require that family members be given a chance to attend hearings.

However, corruption is difficult to stop in its tracks. Bad judges will always enable bad guardians. Those in power can get away with breaking laws.

Some of the most promising solutions for this crisis come from people themselves.

One cheering development—which we are trying to perpetuate with this essay—is a greater awareness. In the tragic tale of the Norths, a change came midstream. At a 2015 hearing at which the Norths were to discuss finances, local media was present, since a Las Vegas newspaper had recently run an investigative article. The members of the media found a Norheim who was suddenly concerned about the Norths while he’d presided over Parks’ exploitation of them for nearly two years. In fact, at that hearing, Norheim suspended Parks from the case—a tremendous load off the Norths, and what would become the first domino to fall in their eventual victory. No one familiar with Norheim’s record would fail to realize this as a cynical attempt to cover himself, an act for the press. But it was a big victory for an oppressed elderly couple, and it wouldn’t have happened without a spotlight on the story.

Later, Norheim was permanently pulled from probate hearings involving the elderly. Now, the fact that he was moved to guardianship cases pertaining to minors is frightening, but it shows that the judicial system is capable of some oversight, long overdue though it may be.

The Norths’ large settlement that came later shows that not all components of the system heartlessly conspire against elderly people and their families. Justice is reachable. But it must be fought for. Further, the tragedy of the mental and physical abuse countless people have suffered cannot be made up for with later corrections. Stopping these exploitation campaigns from ever happening is crucial.

This may be a new topic to you—the lay person can’t be expected to understand or to know much about these events, particularly since most would assume something would be in place to stop them. Awareness is the key. While in a perfect world the responsibility wouldn’t be on all of us, there are preventive measures we can take.

As a society, we need to make the ways of avoiding unscrupulous guardians common currency. The power of united people is the best deterrent to would-be exploiters, while an awareness of one’s rights is a defense against neglect and incompetence.

One major course of action is establishing power of attorney. This designates a person to act on behalf of the person in question, making decisions about finances and about healthcare. In fact, that acting attorney can can actually be the person’s guardian.

Elder Law attorney Eric Goldberg told HuffPo that a specific healthcare power of attorney can allow a person invested with the power to make all healthcare decisions for the person when he or she becomes incapacitated.

According to Goldberg, the key is to take these precautions in advance and to be sure that appropriate parties have copies of your paperwork and are aware. In some of the horror stories we’ve outlined, the ward had already drawn a will, which was ignored. This is certainly a worse-case scenario—one can only be as prepared as possible.

Goldberg has a great piece of advice along these lines. He counsels the families of aging relatives to consult with their bank and ideally get it to accept their power of attorney. Similar arrangements are possible with hospitals and doctor’s offices.

This kind of effort helps create partnerships between families and community members who may be there when important actions are to be carried out. This makes it much less likely that the elderly person’s wishes will be lost or ignored.

As a society, we need to make the ways of avoiding unscrupulous guardians common currency. The power of united people is the best deterrent to would-be exploiters, while an awareness of one’s rights is a defense against neglect and incompetence.

We should remain hopeful that legislation will proceed in a moral fashion, helping with the fight. We should contact our representatives.

But ultimately we must be vigilant and take all the precautions we can. The best way to hold onto power is to take it in the first place.

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