Losing Guardianship

February 4, 2009 6:12:35 PM PST
It's a controversy over a court-appointed guardian. A Brooklyn family says they had no idea what they were getting into when they agreed to let an agency take control over an elderly relative.

Now, the family is fighting to get control back.

This is an issue faced by an increasing number of families. Older relatives who can no longer take care of themselves, who should become their guardian?

Seventy-three-year-old Leola McAllister now lives in a sparsely furnished Brooklyn apartment. She's paying $1200 a month in rent, even though she owns a three-family home in Bed-Sty that she lived in for 30 years.

"This is not what I wanted for my mom. I wanted my mom to live her last days in peace and harmony where we can take care of her and provide for her," her daughter, Tammy, said.

She and her two aunts couldn't agree on who should become guardian when Mrs. McAllister started deteriorating dangerously from Alzheimer's disease.

The family says they were referred to an attorney who recommended a court-appointed guardian, a non-profit agency called the Vera Institute, which has offices in the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn.

"They convinced us, along with our lawyer and judge that they were the perfect people to take over that way we wouldn't be family conflicted," Mary Sargeant said.

But Mrs. McAllister's family says they became alarmed when the agency moved her out of the home she had shared with Tammy and placed her in a sterile apartment, and then started spending thousands on 24-hour home-health care aides - $66,000 in 2007 alone, plus more than $14,000 for rent.

"Why pay rent when you can use that money to make repairs in the house that she owned?" McAllister's sister, Patricia Prescod, wondered.

"I was telling them with the money she had, they could have easily got the repairs done. But they couldn't care less. Their whole aim was to get the property, sell it, and put her in a nursing home," Mary said.

The family doesn't understand why Mrs. McAllister couldn't have stayed in the comfort of her own home and rented part of it out for income. In one year, the guardianship depleted more than $123,000 of Mrs. McAllister's money.

"They were sending us statements from time to time and the money was going very fast," Mary said.

The family asked their pastor, Edward Lanham, to review the guardianship's expenses.

"If you do calculation, the expenses from my numbers exceed $12,000 a month; some families can live off of half of that. That's excessive," he said.

To pay for her increasing expenses, the guardianship is now selling Mrs. McAllister's house and an adjacent vacant lot she also owns. Her daughter, Tammy says she was ordered by the guardianship program to move out. She rented a small van and took what she could, moving into a nearby public housing development.

"They booted me and my kids out of the home," Tammy said. "What I want is to be able to take care of my mother. I would love for this whole thing to be reversed and turned around."

Tammy and the aunts say they went back to court to try to reverse the guardianship.

"We tried to reverse it, but we were told by the judge and the lawyers that it was a no, no," Mary said.

They then demanded a meeting with the staff of the Vera Institute, but afterwards told us they didn't get all of the answers they wanted.

"They're spending up her money, right? What's going to happen at the end? They're going to throw her in a nursing home?" wondered Tammy, frustrated that she would have no say in what happens.

The Vera Institute gave us this statement: "We make every effort to include families in our decision-making process. When we are unable to reach consensus with family members, we are always willing to go back to court and conference the case with the court. Everything we do is subject to the scrutiny of the judge who appoints us as guardian."

"We would like to have my sister back and every nickel these people spent of hers. We would like to have it back," Mary said. "I feel that she has been robbed and taken advantage of and it hurts to see my older sister suffering from this disease? and to have someone take advantage of her, its very hard. It's very stressful."

"I just pray and hope that this doesn't happen to anyone else, because this is? it's very devastating," Tammy said. "Don't let strangers take over... because they will just do as they please."

Mrs. McAllister's family has now filed court papers demanding a hearing before the Guardianship Judge.

Experts warn that the role of a court-appointed guardian is to make sure the client is safe and taken care of. They are not financial or investment advisers or contractors. Families need to really do their homework.


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