On March 30, 2023, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing, “Guardianship and its Alternatives: Protection and Empowerment.” Importantly, this hearing featured one victim witness, Dr. Tina Paone, who spoke about her family’s traumatic, unresolved guardianship nightmare.
Her testimony resonated for the many victims that listened to her, as we know too well that guardianship cases are never resolved when there is an estate with money. As she said, “On paper, the current system appears well-intentioned. That’s not how it plays out. On behalf of my family, and so many others, I beg you to please implement meaningful reform.”
At this same hearing, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) proposed a bill titled the Guardianship Bill of Rights Act, which would create a national council charged with promoting less restrictive arrangements for people living under, or being considered for, court-ordered guardianship—thereby leading to fewer guardianships.
As I described in “Guardianship Destroyed My Family,” published last year on Mad in America, I have seen in my own life the damage and exploitation that can be wreaked by court-appointed guardians. In an effort to advocate and enact change, I belong to Victims and Families Harmed by Guardianship, a national human rights coalition that functions as a consortium of state coalitions on the quest for reform.
This is critical work. Most victims cannot report the exploitation they are experiencing because they are silenced by gag orders, chemical restraint, or threats of retaliation. So, it is up to us—those of us who can speak out—to use our voices for those who cannot. Hopefully, we will be heard.
Some background: Britney Spears is not alone
For many people, the considerable harms of guardianship only came to the fore with the story of Britney Spears, whose long battle for agency and independence ended on November 12, 2021—when a judge freed her from a conservatorship that had controlled her life for 13 years. Five months earlier, following Spears’ emotional testimony, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Casey stated that they wanted more federal oversight of the country’s guardianship system. They wrote a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), asking both agencies to provide information about data they collect on the prevalence of guardianship in the U.S; on any efforts the agencies have made to protect people under guardianship; and on the ways Congress can improve federal collection of guardianship data.
In that letter, they described how “Ms. Spears’ case has shined a light on longstanding concerns from advocates who have underscored the potential for financial and civil rights abuses of individuals placed under guardianship or conservatorship.” I spoke to a staff lawyer in Senator Warren’s office, now gone, who told me they never received a response to their letter.
Britney Spears is hardly alone: An advocate in California suggested that based on the current population, there may be as many as 4 million people in guardianship. And as Spears told the court, “this conservatorship is doing me way more harm than good.” She described in excruciating detail how the legal guardians dictated where she lives, works, and receives therapy. They stopped her from seeing friends, forced her to take medication against her will, and prevented her from having her IUD removed so she could try to get pregnant.
She went on to say, “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things.”
With the above as a backdrop, I and other advocates contacted Senator Casey’s office, and we asked for a virtual meeting with the Senator. He was not available, but we met with Josh Dubensky of his staff (who has since left the Senator’s office). The victims were from all over the country and we met every month, having approximately six sessions total. He designated an email address for us to send in our guardianship stories to share with him, Senator Casey, and the Senate Committee on Aging.
During these sessions, we asked to have a hearing convened so that victims and their families could describe our experiences, including all the harms we endured, in a public forum. We told him it is not legislation that we need; we need investigations and prosecutions. When Mr. Dubensky left the office, he referred us to another member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and part of Senator Casey’s team.
In March, 2021, U.S. Representatives Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FLA) sent a letter to U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), then Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, asking that a hearing be convened in the House Judiciary Committee. Victims from all over the country sent letters to Congressman Nadler and the entire Judiciary committee. We never heard from him.
In July of 2021, Representative Charlie Crist (D-FLA) introduced the FREE ACT to “protect Americans whose rights have been stripped away”—which is completely meaningless and useless. Why? Because he didn’t simultaneously call for investigations for the already existing victims. At the time he made the announcement, he was asked if investigations were a possibility, and he said no. Obviously, he is not serious. The matter of guardianship fraud needs to be referred to the DOJ.
We contacted Crist, too—and got no response. Can’t such politicians imagine this could be happening to them? Apparently not.
Then, on December 1, 2021, Crist and Eric Swalwell (D-Ca) invited Britney Spears to speak to Congress by sending a letter to her via her attorney. Victims learned about the letter in February of 2022, when Spears posted it on her social media account.
That same month, we began communicating with Michael Gamel-McCormick, Director of Disability Rights in the office of Senator Casey, who is chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. I sent him my MIA personal essay. He emailed to let me know that their office cannot work on individual cases, but said “it illustrates the thousands of problems with guardianships and conservatorships” and added: “We are working at the federal level to ensure due process and oversight.”
Later in February, representing our victims’ coalition, I emailed McCormick to say that it was important to convene a hearing or hearings on this crisis—and it is important, too, to raise awareness and promote understanding of what happens under guardianship and what those of us who’ve lived through it have experienced. If we aren’t heard, things can be denied and ignored. There needs to be firsthand evidence from victim families. He responded with the following: “Senator Casey agrees with you about firsthand voices at hearings. We can’t commit to a time for those hearings now, but they are part of the planning process.” Victims again began sending in their guardianship stories to him.
Listening to victims
So, after years of pushing and persevering and begging reporters to write stories on guardianship, and urging politicians to represent us, and meet with us, and hold hearings, we finally had our hearing on March 30.
To be clear: We don’t think the Guardianship Bill of Rights Act is the answer. When Senator Casey introduced it, he, too, didn’t call for investigations and prosecutions. None of this is surprising, given the political machines that influence Congress—and the judges who hand out lucrative guardianships to some of the very lawyers who helped them get elected. If not for lawyer-lobbyists and money in politics, there would not be the problem of guardianships.
Families are absolutely blindsided by the abuse that results. People are being pushed into guardianship and their assets taken. This is not a tricky issue. The Department of Justice must act.
In 2018, The New York Times published a story about Phyllis Funke, a 77-year old journalist, with whom I spoke in the hopes she could attend a meeting I was trying to arrange with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY). After scheduling a meeting in Washington, D.C., it was abruptly canceled. Ms. Funke was completely overcome by what had happened to her after she was placed into a guardianship with a former New York policeman. As she described to The Times, all of her assets were withheld from her. “I’ve been bullied, blackmailed and stripped of the things I need to live, including my money.”
In 2022, Orit Mizrachi of California told me her mother was placed into an unwarranted conservatorship after a lawyer said she should file for it herself—to protect her mother. Mizrachi was not appointed. Instead, a professional guardian and a lawyer were appointed. They began billing her and placing liens on the family home. They spent $75,000 of her mother’s money trying to transfer her parents’ savings accounts from Israel, and did not allow her mother to travel there to visit her siblings.
Another California victim, Patty Lacy, a registered nurse, shared with me that her late father, a US veteran, was placed into a conservatorship with a guardian who was a complete stranger and neglected her father’s health needs. As a result, Lacy not only lost her inheritance, but was denied the opportunity to care for him. “I listened to the hearing, and I do not believe in another bill that judges will violate,” she told me. “The senators said nothing of how they will reimburse the victims and families for the confiscation of their assets and lack of healthcare. What about removing the judges and having them disbarred?”
Next, consider the story of Poppy Hegren, director of nursing services at Southern Nevada State Veterans Home in Boulder City, NV, and the only child of Lester Moore, a U.S. veteran who died in 2021. Hegren emailed me the following after we spoke:
“Like you, I believe that there needs to be investigations into the Guardianship racket that has stolen the inheritances of the rightful heirs. I was tricked into seeking a conservatorship for my father in CA, although there was a Family Trust that clearly stated my parents’ wishes and had me as the only child being the Successor Trustee. I will never forget in the Probate Courtroom in Ventura County CA, the numerous attorneys at the hearing, acting like vultures in their fancy suits and Italian leather shoes. After the hearing, I watched them in the parking lot drive off in their Mercedes Benzes and Land Rovers. It was never about protecting my father with dementia. It was about grabbing his assets that he and my mother, both Depression survivors of the South and Veterans, had saved through frugal living.
“The Judge ignored the Family Trust and placed Lester Moore under a for-profit conservatorship that proceeded to liquidate his assets and property. His 500-plus acres and the numerous homes he had since 1956 in Arkansas were also liquidated by this CA conservator. (This was) property that was meant to stay in our family. Any Southerner understands the meaning of land.
“The Judge also continues to hold on to $250,000 of the Trust assets over 2 years after my father’s death, ‘just in case there is further litigation.’ These are assets that are meant for the rightful heirs, not the legal elite.”
Lester Moore’s family is hardly alone: An audit by the guardianship fraud program in Palm Beach County estimates that over $273 billion in assets are controlled by guardians in the United States.
This has to stop. Change needs to happen. Victims have written to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on The Constitution. As one victim family wrote, wishing to be anonymous: “We must end the victimization of American families by the probate system’s conservatorship/guardianship legal complex.”
Right under our noses, Americans are being railroaded into unneeded guardianships and conservatorships, controlled by appointees who, with the help of the courts, proceed to bill the assets of the victims and their families with no oversight.
Yes, the guardianship system can be reformed by making sure no one is sent there—but no one will be sent there if you abolish it. Everyone knows that there is a pattern and practice of abuse in the probate courts across the country, and the way that ends is with investigation and prosecution of those who are violating the laws and rights of vulnerable people who come to court for protection.
We were all horrified as the details of Ms. Spears’ case were revealed. She had been held against her will for 13 years and silenced with threats and drugs. Her earnings were billed away by attorneys. This is happening to untold numbers of Americans under the color of law and under the guise of “protection.” Families are being ruined and their estates robbed by “officers of the court.”
Ms. Spears has finally escaped. We have to ensure that the rest of us escape as well.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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