Ordinary citizens who rail against injustices they see in the U.S. guardianship system can come across as a little unhinged.
They send emails bristling with capital letters and exclamation points. They compose blogs that read like vendettas against specific attorneys. They obsess over small details, but omit from their narratives the major complications that might explain why things went against them in court.
They call journalists — who often abandon efforts to check out their stories because of the time involved. These cases are convoluted, and much vital information is sealed from the public eye.
They form their own, usually underfunded, organizations: National Association to STOP Guardian Abuse. Boomers Against Elder Abuse. Temple Gate: Challenging the Guardianship Industry.
Attorneys and other professionals in the system tend to roll their eyes when they hear these names.
Sam Sugar, an Aventura physician who founded Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, says he knows why people trying to tell their stories are so often seen as suspect.
“They have been so maimed and damaged by this David-and-Goliath battle,” he says. “It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Elder law reform advocates on a national level take many of the critics’ points seriously. But because guardianship procedures vary from state to state, and county to county, they must struggle to make themselves heard on a case-by-case basis.
Beverly Newman of Sarasota, with her husband Lawrence, runs a small nonprofit named in honor of her father, The Al Katz Center for Holocaust Survivors & Jewish Learning Inc. A central mission — not suggested by the name — is helping elders and their families fight guardianship proceedings. Because of their web presence, they hear from people all over the country.
Newman admits that people trapped in the system often seem hysterical; she says it’s because they are caught in a situation that makes no sense to them.
“A lot of times it’s very, very easy to get defensive because accusations are flying,” she says. “You have two choices: you can address the accusations, combat them, confront them, wither under them — or you can focus on the ward. What I advise every time is, focus on the ward. This is the person who is helpless to do virtually anything on his own behalf.”
The Newmans assisted Marie Winkelman for over a year, filing briefs, helping her replace her first attorney and guardian, and walking her through the process of proving her capacity to make decisions.
But hearings on her case have been closed to them, and the court does not acknowledge them as interested parties.
“We don’t exist,” Beverly Newman says. “The court ignores us.”
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Railing against injustice, one case at a time