Families say loved ones are being ripped away by a closed, unfair system.
Putting legal power over a person into a stranger’s hands is supposedly considered a last resort by the court system.
But several local families say that what began as a volunteer program to help the old and vulnerable has evolved into a close-knit alliance of probate judges, attorneys, care providers, and quasi-governmental nonprofit employees. These factions, while doing good in many cases, sometimes rip families apart without giving relatives so much as the courtesy of being present at the hearings where such decisions are made.
“The system is rigged, and the family has nowhere to turn,” said Kathie Seidel, one of a handful of local residents who accuse the probate court and GSI of removing loved ones from their homes unnecessarily.
The residents describe being replaced as guardians in court hearings without being given a chance to defend themselves — and then being required to put up $10,000 bonds in order to be allowed to appeal the decision. Overturning a court’s decision on guardianship can become a maze of dead ends. Families don’t know where to turn, other than to legislators who might change the laws — and that’s been a slow-moving ship.
The families believe the system involves too-cozy relationships between judges, attorneys, caseworkers, and others and is rife with intimidation and retaliatory behavior designed to shut out families that might get in the way.
Attorneys donate money to the election campaigns of probate judges who assign those same attorneys to guardianship cases. Attorneys also donate money to GSI, which in turn shepherds clients to nursing homes and other facilities that want to keep their beds filled. The nonprofit’s funding is based on its number of clients. Its board of directors is mostly composed of attorneys and has included nursing home representatives in the past.
Efforts to expose the system’s flaws and build support for reforms fell on deaf ears in the past, but that might be changing. Four North Texas families traveled to Austin last week to testify at a Texas Senate interim hearing along with other families from around the state. They told their stories to a committee led by Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, describing secret hearings and retaliation from court-appointed guardians using family members as pawns in power struggles. They lamented an overall lack of regulation.
Senators appeared surprised and concerned about what’s happening in some guardianship cases.
Pushing for reforms nationwide is the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse (NASGA), an Indiana-based nonprofit group working to get a federal response to guardianship problems caused by self-policing courts and programs. “Each state is different, and each county has their own procedure, so the only answer is federal,” said Sylvia Rudek, a NASGA board member. “There is no due process. They have ex-parte hearings. There are no civil rights — that’s what makes it federal.”
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