When Shelley Thomson fell ill earlier this year with potassium deficiency and called 911, she didn’t expect her life to change so drastically. Formerly, the 75-year-old lived freely in a home in New Braunfels, Texas, inherited from a parent.
The retired stock broker now resides in a bedroom with bars on the window in a locked facility. It was a guardianship imposed upon Thomson on May 23 that resulted in her becoming a ward of the state.
Currently, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is her guardian and a legal battle has ensued in federal court alleging violations of Thomson’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.
Thomson is among the estimated 48,467 Texans conscripted into the state's guardianship program in 254 counties as of April 2019, according to Office of Court Administration data in Austin, Texas, and nationwide, the National Center for State Courts has ventured to guess that some 1.3 million adults are under the thumb of a family or professional guardian who control some $50 billion of the adults' assets.
Texas HHSC Press Officer Kelli Weldon declined to comment about Thomson except to say that the HHSC Office of Guardianship currently serves as guardian to a total of 865 wards statewide.
Once under a court appointed guardianship, older adults like Thomson can be denied the right to decide where to live, to vote, to choose medical care, health insurance and marital status, to handle finances, to hire a lawyer and even to have family and friends visit them.
As 77 million baby boomers advance into their golden years, advocates are lobbying for reformation of the existing system to prevent unwarranted guardianships of the aging.
“Guardianship reformers should convince one state to become a model,” said Tom Coleman, an attorney, founder of the Spectrum Institute and producer of the Hollywood documentary “Pursuit of Justice.”
“Then we will have something to use as we challenge other states,” Coleman predicted.
In Pennsylvania, Jeffrey Hennel says he was ignored after complaining to the Chester County court appointed guardian that his 68-year-old mother Linda Hennel was unwell and needed medical attention while she resided in a care center. Hennel’s mother was eventually admitted to a nearby hospital but a few weeks later on May 8, the concerned son says he was informed his mother was dead. “My mother was denied medical care and placed on hospice against her will,” Hennel alleges.
Senior Care and Guardian Services of Pennsylvania, Mrs. Hennel’s court appointed guardian, didn't return calls requesting a comment.
Hennel’s mother was among the 18,260 active guardianships in the state, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC).
“Judges, legislators, advocates, guardians, district attorneys and others have developed a blueprint of recommendations to address these challenges,” said Stacey Witalec, communications director with the AOPC. “The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) has developed and is implementing the Guardianship Tracking System (GTS), which allows courts to enhance guardianship monitoring through a statewide uniform process.“
While Pennsylvania's Democratic Senator Bob Casey, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Aging, introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act last year, critics say it doesn’t do enough to hold judges accountable.
“Unless the Department of Justice, the Attorney Generals and Supreme Court Justices in each and every state forcefully intervene, unsuspecting families of aging boomers are at risk for being stripped of all their rights, isolated from friends and family, institutionalized and losing all their assets, their dignity and their very lives,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG) and author of the book "Guardianships and the Elderly: The Perfect Crime."
The state of Michigan appears to be coming to the rescue with a model of reformation initiated by a newly created Elder Abuse Task Force nearly two years after a federal lawsuit named the Michigan Supreme Court, the Michigan Attorney General, each of the state’s probate courts and all 300 professional guardians as defendants.
“Chief Justice [Bridget Mary] McCormack reached out to the Attorney General [Dana Nessel] earlier this year to discuss her concerns about elder abuse and the task force was created to investigate, listen to the public, look at best practices, and make recommendations,” said Michigan Supreme Court Communications Officer John Nevin.
“Justices [Megan K.] Cavanagh and [Richard] Bernstein are serving on the task force and are traveling across Michigan to attend listening sessions, hearing from the public regarding their specific concerns.”
The task force is reportedly looking at recommending several changes to the guardianship system as described on the website and as detailed in Attorney Bradley Geller’s 2017 federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan.
Geller told Newsmax Finance that he filed the complaint after becoming increasingly aware that the purpose of the system had been corrupted during his 30 years of involvement with guardianship issues.
“Judges were ignoring the law with impunity and judges were blocking all legislative and administrative efforts at reform,” Geller said of Michigan probate courts.
Juliette Fairley is an author, lecturer and TV host based in New York.
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