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GUARDIANS FOR PROFIT

When a Family Matter Turns Into a Business

Conservators are supposed to protect the elderly and infirm. But some neglect their clients, isolate them -- even plunder their assets.

November 13, 2005|Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Helen Jones sits in a wheelchair, surrounded by strangers who control her life.

She is not allowed to answer the telephone. Her mail is screened. She cannot spend her own money.

A child of the Depression, Jones, 87, worked hard for decades, driving rivets into World War II fighter planes, making neckties, threading bristles into nail-polish brushes. She saved obsessively, putting away $560,000 for her old age.

Her life changed three years ago, when a woman named Melodie Scott told a court in San Bernardino that Jones was unable to manage for herself. Without asking Jones, a judge made Scott -- someone she had never met -- her legal guardian.

Scott is a professional conservator.

It was her responsibility to protect Jones and conserve her nest egg. So far, Scott has spent at least $200,000 of it. The money has gone to pay Scott's fees, fill Jones' house with new appliances she did not want and hire attendants to supervise her around the clock, among other expenses.

Once Jones grasped what was happening, she found a lawyer and tried, unsuccessfully, to end Scott's hold on her. "I don't want to be a burden to anyone," she told a judge, almost apologetically. "I just wanted to be on my own."

Jones' world has narrowed. She used to call Dial-A-Ride and go to the market, or sit in her driveway chatting with neighbors.

Now she spends her days watching television in her living room in Yucaipa, amid pots of yellow plastic flowers and lamps with no shades. The caretakers rarely take her from her house, except to see the free movie each Friday at the local senior center.

"I'm frustrated, because I don't know my way out," she said, sitting within earshot of one of Scott's aides. "There must be a way out."

Jones' conservator is part of a young, growing and largely unregulated trade in California.

Conservatorship began as a way to help families protect enfeebled relatives from predators and self-neglect. As a final recourse, courts take basic freedoms from grown men and women and give conservators sweeping power over their property, their money and the smallest details of their lives.

But lawmakers and judges did not foresee that professionals would turn what had been a family matter into a business.

In the hands of this new breed of entrepreneur, a system meant to safeguard the elderly and infirm often fails them.

The Times examined the work of California's professional conservators, reviewing more than 2,400 cases, including every one they handled in Southern California between 1997 and 2003.

Among the findings:

* Seniors lose their independence with stunning swiftness. More than 500 were entrusted to for-profit conservators without their consent at hearings that lasted minutes. Retired candy company owner Donald Van Ness, 85, did not know what had happened to him until he tried to pay for lunch at a San Diego-area restaurant and was told his credit card had been canceled.

* Some conservators misuse their near-parental power over fragile adults, ignoring their needs and isolating them from loved ones. One withheld the allowance that a disabled man relied on for food, leaving him to survive on handouts from a church. Another abruptly moved a 95-year-old woman to a care home and for a month refused to tell her daughter where she was.

* In the most egregious cases, conservators plunder seniors' estates. One took 88-year-old Thelma Larabee's savings to pay his taxes and invest in a friend's restaurant. Helen Smith's conservator secretly sold Smith's house at a discount -- to herself. The conservator's daughter later resold it for triple the price.

* More commonly, conservators run up their fees in ways large and small, eating into seniors' assets. A conservator charged a Los Angeles woman $170 in fees to have an employee bring her $49.93 worth of groceries. Palm Springs widow Mary Edelman kept paying from beyond the grave: Her conservators charged her estate $1,700 for attending her burial.

* Once in conservators' grasp, it is difficult -- and expensive -- for seniors to get out. Courts typically compel them to pay not only their own legal fees, but those of their unwanted guardians as well. In the 15 months it took Theresa Herrera's grandson to unseat her conservator, almost half of the 92-year-old's $265,000 estate had been exhausted.

"It's really scary," said Mitchell Karasov, a North Hollywood attorney who specializes in elder law. "Would you want that to happen to you? This is what we'll have to look forward to -- that we'll be disposable when we no longer have a voice."

There are about 500 professional conservators in California, overseeing $1.5 billion in assets. They hold legal authority over at least 4,600 of California's most vulnerable adults.

Yet they are subject to less state regulation than hairdressers or guide-dog trainers. No agency licenses conservators or investigates complaints against them.

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