GREELEY, Kan. — Minnie Monoff had a guardian, a court-appointed attorney and a judge who were supposed to look out for her and protect her, but to her it seemed no one would listen.
She had recovered from a stroke and returned home. She wanted control of her life, she said, but her guardian wouldn't give it to her.
Instead, she said, the friend who had been named her guardian got an emergency court order and had her sedated by a nurse, taken from home by the county sheriff and placed in a nursing home.
Her court-appointed attorney waived a hearing on the order without consulting Monoff, in part out of concern for the 82-year-old woman's health in the summer heat.
"You don't know what a sick feeling I had, to leave my home, where I was happy and taking care of myself."
"It's rotten. It's no good," she said of her guardianship.
Five weeks of Monoff's pleas eventually overturned the guardianship. What began as a plan to protect her affairs while she recovered from the stroke became a nightmare.
Monoff's case, while rare, poignantly shows how courts, charged with overseeing guardianship cases, can ignore their wards. The result can be costly to the elderly, both in terms of their money and their lives.
The Associated Press investigation into probate courts' handling of such guardianships found systems that have lapsed into paper-shuffling routines with few protections. With alarming frequency, funds that represent life savings are exposed to mishandling, abuse and theft.
The few safeguards sometimes fail or may be ignored by the courts, who routinely take the word of a guardian or attorney without independent checking or full hearings.
The results leave the 300,000 to 400,000 people supposedly protected by guardianships with little protection at all.
"We're going to have to change our court system and be watchdogs over these judges and lawyers," an angry Monoff says now.
A survey of more than 2,200 cases, chosen at random from courts in all 50 states, showed that 48% of the guardians were delinquent in annual reports of how they spent their wards' money--a lapse that violates the law. Without the annual accountings, the courts are blind to theft or negligence.
Even rarer are reports on the health and well-being of wards. They could be found in only 16% of the files.
Few states have systems for checking on guardians. Only California has state-paid court investigators who periodically visit the wards; other court examiners audit how the wards' money is spent.
Through checking of court files and extensive interviews in all 50 states, the AP encountered numerous examples of what can happen when courts don't keep track of elderly wards and their money:
- In 1985, a Chicago social worker found an 83-year-old woman lying in a urine-soaked bed, suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration. The woman, whose guardian was her daughter, was left in the care of grandchildren who, the social worker said, fed her once a day, called her "Fido" and spent her Social Security payments. Despite their denials, a judge ruled that the grandchildren had "failed in their duty" and placed the woman with the public guardian.
- A Pittsburgh accountant, guardian of an 82-year-old woman, spent $156,202 of her $161,968 estate in 22 months. Among the reported expenses were a $24,175 guardianship fee and a $20,000 commission for investing $45,000 of her money in his own business venture. The court ordered him to repay the estate $123,000.
- A Cincinnati man lost $7,000 in two years under guardianship, including $3,500 in payroll checks and two bars of silver allegedly taken from a safety deposit box. The guardian's bond, required by the court to protect the ward's assets, had been forged. That guardianship was dismissed in 1985.
Judges and court clerks in many places acknowledge that they have little control.
"We don't have many resources. Once in a while, I'll yank one (a case file) and audit it," said Chris Tountas, a Phoenix, Ariz., probate court commissioner who receives information on 60 guardianships a day but audits only 12 cases a year.
"Does the court open files and look? I don't think that happens unless a problem is brought to the attention of the court by a family member or creditor," said Michael J. Carbo, a former probate court master in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
While most guardianships are properly administered, 13% of the more than 2,200 files examined by AP reporters contained no reports or accountings--not a document filed after the granting of the guardianship.
Court clerks, the busy keepers of county records, often were at a loss to explain what had happened to the ward, the guardian and the estate, or money. Indeed, in many of the counties examined by the AP, court officials acknowledged that they had no idea how many guardianship cases they had.
"There are only two of us here. We don't have time for all that," a Collier County, Fla., clerk said.