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For Most Vulnerable, a Promise Abandoned

L.A.'s public guardian, stripped of county funding for over a decade, turns away many in need.

November 16, 2005|Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Pearl Inferrera had $70 to her name when she arrived at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center. At 83, she had fallen in her apartment and broken her wrist. Doctors diagnosed her with dementia and chronic anemia.

Inferrera's meager circumstances and failing health made her the archetypal client for the Public Guardian's Office, Los Angeles County's conservator of last resort.

But Inferrera's treatment over four years as a county ward shows the agency's painful decline.

The public guardian once embodied a commitment to protect elderly men and women no longer able to care for themselves. It now represents something quite different: a broken promise to these fragile adults.

Until September, when the Board of Supervisors allotted $1.1 million to expand the agency's staff, the nation's largest county had not spent a penny of its own money on its program for the elderly since 1990.

It was the only such program in Southern California -- and one of the few in the state -- abandoned in this manner by elected officials.

The agency now rejects more than four of five aged citizens referred for help. Months or even years have passed before it acts -- at least 660 seniors have died since 1998 waiting for the public guardian to decide whether to assist them.

For the comparatively few whose cases are accepted, the office's swamped staff has trouble meeting their basic needs. Seniors have had to do without eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures. One elderly woman lost much of her small estate when the agency allowed her house to slip into foreclosure.

Three years ago, the public guardian had a waiting list of more than 300 senior citizens, each one in or near a crisis.

It is down to 15 now -- but not because more people are being served.

After The Times requested information about the backlog, the agency adopted a new policy: It started rejecting people faster.

"Can we meet the need?" said Deputy Director Christopher Fierro, the office's top administrator. "No."

Inferrera was a divorcee who lived alone in a small Burbank apartment complex before she was hospitalized.

The public guardian asked a Los Angeles County Probate Court for authority over her affairs in August 1998, saying alcoholism and increasing confusion had left her unable to return to independent living.

As Inferrera's conservator, the agency was responsible for managing her money and seeing to her daily needs.

Its performance fell short.

Although a doctor concluded that she did not need to live in a locked nursing home, court records show, the public guardian obtained court authority to put her in one anyway. The agency then moved her to a Pasadena facility where many of the patients had serious mental illnesses.

One attacked Inferrera, battering her head with a cane.

Her injuries were minor, but the incident left her traumatized, said Lorraine Woodburn, her grand-niece.

"She was like a whimpering puppy," Woodburn said. "Very sad, very frightened and very alone."

Woodburn helped Inferrera find a board-and-care home she preferred, but a year later, her new landlord sued to evict her: The public guardian hadn't paid her rent.

Fierro said the agency had done its best for Inferrera and that her unpaid rent stemmed from a holdup involving her Social Security benefits, not inattention.

But attorney Trikkia Keel, Inferrera's court-appointed lawyer, told a judge the agency had neglected her client.

"She begins to sob each time she talks about what she has been undergoing," Keel wrote.

Faced with Keel's opposition, the public guardian resigned from Inferrera's case in June 2002, replaced by a nonprofit group until her death in April.

Woodburn's eyes still well up when she recalls what her great-aunt went through.

"I wouldn't want to do that to anyone," she said, "and I wouldn't want it done to me."

A More Urgent Mission

Los Angeles County created the Public Guardian's Office in 1945 to step in when adults had no one else to care for them. Its services were to be provided free, courtesy of county taxpayers.

The agency's mission has become more urgent as the county's elderly population has expanded. Yet today, the public guardian has about 500 wards, compared with 1,200 in 1979.

Between 1998 and 2003, the agency sifted through more than 4,000 requests to take over the affairs of physically or mentally disabled adults. It accepted just 16% of them.

The public guardian's inability to meet the demand has helped fuel the rise of for-profit conservators, some of whom got their start at the agency.

Private conservators typically take on wards with sizable estates. The public guardian is often the only source of help for elderly people with little or no money.

The agency's 24-member probate staff occupies threadbare offices in the county Hall of Records, partly in a windowless, bunker-like space called "the stacks."

Until the mid-1980s, the public guardian and public administrator, the agency that manages estates of the dead, received more than $1 million a year from Los Angeles County.

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