Note: Originally published October 24, 2014:
Instead, under the care of a court-appointed conservator, the World War II veteran, who had always lived independently, was stripped of his rights, relegated to a nursing home and drained of his life savings.
Russo's friends and supporters are channeling their energy into getting him back into his New Fairfield house by Veterans Day.
Meanwhile, their outrage has intensified calls for review, reform and legislation to ensure that there aren't more cases like his.
"I have great respect for the vast majority of conservators in Probate Court, but I am aware that there have been a few very bad cases, and that is a few too many," said Keith Bradoc Gallant, a New Haven attorney and leading authority on probate procedure. "We just need to work on fixing that."
At issue is how to prevent misconduct when a court-appointed conservator is given full power over a person deemed disabled by age or mental incapacity.
Connecticut can learn from other states that use social workers as conservators, because they are trained to navigate the social service system, Gallant said. There is also a growing sense nationwide that the power of conservators should be checked, he added.
Although experts argue that misconduct is rare among conservators in Connecticut probate courts, activists warn that as the population ages, the demand for conservators is going to grow.
All the more reason to be sure that conservators are well-qualified and well-monitored, a top court official said. "I would like to build a program for statewide training and support for conservators," said Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim.
Knierim, who manages the state's 54 probate courts, said he is open to establishing a licensing program for conservators, like those in other states.
Had there been kin in Russo's life following a fall at his home two summers ago, when a social worker reported to Probate Court that he could no longer manage his affairs, the judge possibly would have considered naming a family member as conservator.
Besides wanting a conservator competent enough to manage a person's financial and health affairs, the probate judge typically looks for someone compassionate enough to keep the person's best interests at heart.
"You are talking about a combination of factors that really are challenging," said Gallant, who serves as the American College of Trust and Estate's representative to the National Guardianship Association. "The problem is how you find individuals with integrity to take on these very difficult tasks."
Since Russo never married and his closest kin was an 88-year-old sister in Florida too frail to care for him, Housatonic Probate Judge Martin Landgrebe appointed as conservator a man Russo had never met, Mark Broadmeyer, whose qualifications for the post were not clear.
Instead of putting Russo in a veterans home, where he could have stayed without charge while repairs to his own home were made, Broadmeyer placed Russo in a Danbury nursing home, where he racked up bills he could not afford.
Broadmeyer spent Russo's $35,000 in life savings and $10,000 in Social Security income on repairs and his own fees over the next 16 months, ignoring Russo's pleas to return home.
Broadmeyer even rented Russo's home out without the judge's permission.
Connecticut's probate courts were reformed most recently in 2009, when more than 130 courts were consolidated into today's 54. And for the first time, judges were required to be attorneys.
Complaints about conservators are handled in Probate Court by the same judges who appointed them.
In Russo's case, as soon as Landgrebe learned that Broadmeyer had rented out the home behind his back, the judge ordered Broadmeyer to evict the tenants and pay the eviction costs himself.
Broadmeyer quit instead.
Knierim refused to comment on the case, because Broadmeyer is being investigated by Russo's newly appointed conservator, Danbury attorney Dean Lewis.
Lewis' solution was to reimburse part of the tenants' expenses if they agreed to leave by Oct. 20, which they did. Lewis plans to begin his investigation of Broadmeyer once Russo is back in his home.
State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said the judge would have seen red flags much sooner with stricter reporting requirements that could have spared Russo months of suffering.
"I'm hopeful to have some legislation to introduce soon," he said.
a href="http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/WWII-veteran-s-plight-brings-call-for-probate-5847546.php#photo-7046513">WWII Veteran's Plight Brings Call for Probate Court Reform
The story of a 96 Year Old WWII Combat Veteran, his battle for dignity and justice, and those that would become his new family and his new alliance.
Operation Vet Fit founder and Veterans Advocate, US Marine Veterans, Daniel R. Gaita assist 96 year-old, WWII Combat Veterans Louis Russo during his Jan 28th, 2015 Probate Court Hearing. This video is a short segment from a 5 hour hearing.