Bedbugs, Rats and No Heat: How One Woman Endured a Decade of Neglect in New York’s Guardianship System

On ProPublica, Jake Pearson examines the case of a woman who “lived in squalor” while a legal guardian siphoned off $450 a month, just one example of the system’s inadequacies and abuses: 

“The temperature was plummeting on Thanksgiving eve when Judith Zbiegniewicz wrapped herself in a blanket, picked up her phone and tapped out yet another plea for help to New York Guardianship Services. It was 2018, and for the previous five years the company, whose slogan is ‘caring that makes a difference,’ had overseen nearly every major decision in her life, as it did for hundreds of New Yorkers deemed incapable by the courts of looking after themselves.

The organization had repeatedly maintained in court filings that Zbiegniewicz, who was 65 and suffered from depression and anxiety, was doing well under its supervision 

. . . It was November 2008, and Zbiegniewicz was struggling financially and emotionally. Her father had died suddenly from a heart attack a year and a half earlier, leaving her the family’s Maspeth, Queens, home — and, to her surprise, a reverse mortgage. The outstanding debt was $266,532.95.

Zbiegniewicz had no job and no way to pay. She had been dependent on her father all of her adult life, the result of an early trauma: At 18, she was raped leaving the subway on her way to work at Queens’ Welbilt Stove plant. . . . 

Now, with the house in foreclosure, someone called the city to check on her. Adult Protective Services soon sent a psychiatric nurse practitioner, who diagnosed Zbiegniewicz with depression, anxiety and a dependent personality disorder. In a court petition, the city noted that she relied on food stamps and public assistance. With bills piling up, she had just $459.88 in her bank account.

So on a January day in 2010, to help Zbiegniewicz stave off eviction, a city lawyer walked into a wood-paneled courtroom in the state Supreme Court building in Queens and asked a judge to declare her an ‘incapacitated person’ in need of a guardian to manage her finances and housing. . . 

The judge granted the city’s request.” 

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