BY PENNY ARCADE, DANA DAVISON and MIKKI MAHER | A suffocating and corrupt bureaucracy has grown up around social services for the elderly. Guardians, social workers, financial managers and other caregivers too often show a cavalier disregard for the welfare of their charges. And don’t imagine for a moment that it is only lonely, friendless, isolated denizens that become victims of abuse. If you are a senior caught in this bureaucratic quagmire, even your best friends can’t help you.
Consider the case of Kasoundra Kasoundra. This very original New York Underground personality, now pushing 80, has been an avant-garde artist for more than half a century. When she arrived in Manhattan as a Midwestern college dropout in the early ’60s, she boldly knocked on the doors of celebrities such as Hermione Gingold and Bob Dylan simply to find out what made them tick.
Modeling at the Art Students League to earn her living, Kasoundra inserted herself into the urban art underground, making friends with its creative geniuses while she perfected her own considerable talents as a witty collage artist. Brice Marden and Jonas Mekas, among others, collected her artworks, and Maurice Gerodias, founder of The Olympia Press, took her with him on trips to Europe.
Kasoundra hung out with the Alice’s Restaurant crowd at the church in the Berkshires, and acted in Harry Smith’s “Mahagonny.” Her poster of Harry looking at himself in his own eyeglasses is a sought-after treasure.
Flash-forward to January 2011, when Kasoundra was discovered lying on the floor of her kitchen and transported to Lenox Hill Hospital by Adult Protective Services. Kasoundra’s boyfriend had run off with her roommate, and despite her bad liver, Kasoundra had consumed an entire quart of vodka.
When her friends finally located her in the hospital, she was yellow with jaundice.
The physically feisty Kasoundra bounced back soon enough, but she was transferred to the hospital’s psych ward because she complained of depression. This proved to be a dangerous disclosure, because from that moment forward, Kasoundra was never to enjoy her freedom again.
|A self-portrait collage by Kasoundra Kasoundra.|
Although she has fought valiantly through three years of court hearings with three successive judges, Kasoundra remains marooned in a nursing home in New Rochelle with little hope of ever regaining her liberty. How could this happen?
Kasoundra’s trials began with her landlord. As she stayed in the psych ward month after month, her rent fell increasingly behind, and the landlord sued for eviction. Kasoundra paid him $2,000 as a gesture of good faith until she could return home and get her affairs in order, but the landlord was not appeased and the eviction proceeding continued.
Kasoundra had lived for 30 years in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side, and under SCRIE (Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption) she paid $684 a month. With a modest renovation, Kasoundra’s four-room apartment —particularly in view of the new Second Ave. subway line — might easily fetch $3,500 per month in today’s inflated real estate market. Such apartments have become valuable assets to landlords, who often pay rent-stabilized tenants thousands of dollars to move out.
Although the hospital helped Kasoundra acquire a pro bono lawyer to stave off her eviction proceeding, the better course might have been to help her set up an automated bill payment plan at her bank so her rent could be paid on a timely basis.
Kasoundra’s next problem was that her medical condition, hepatic encephalopathy, caused her liver function to wax and wane. This condition (and/or the medication taken for it) can cause symptoms of grogginess and occasional forgetfulness — side effects that dissipate once the liver returns to normal and the medication is discontinued.
In the meantime, the psych ward social worker was reluctant to send Kasoundra home to her apartment, a three-flight walk-up. The staff considered that she might be better off living in Lott House, an elegant, assisted-living facility in her neighborhood, where she could occupy a studio apartment and have her meals served in the spacious dining room with windows overlooking Central Park. Kasoundra loved the park, and had once been a volunteer gardener there.
An appointment was made for a visit to Lott House, but after Kasoundra’s initial interview, her social worker sat on the application for months. No one helped Kasoundra apply for “Community Medicaid,” which, in view of her meager Social Security income, would be needed to pay for homecare services or for her residency at Lott House. Instead, the hospital applied for and received a “hospital Medicaid” payment for the hefty bill Kasoundra now owed the hospital.
As the year drew to a close, Kasoundra’s social worker, who was about to retire, was under pressure to dispose of her cases. Because Community Medicaid had not been set up, Kasoundra could neither return home nor move into Lott House, and her social worker decided to dispense with the problem by seeking a court-appointed guardian under Article 81. For this purpose, Kasoundra was given the short form of the R-Bans Mental Status Test, and the social worker said afterward that Kasoundra had performed poorly “on one component of the test.”
On this flimsy basis, the hospital applied to the New York State Supreme Court for a court-appointed guardian. Since Kasoundra had been adopted and her adoptive parents had passed away, she had no one who could intercede on her behalf or halt the impending termination of her rights and ability to control her own destiny.
The first guardianship hearing took place in December 2011. Although Kasoundra was never sent court papers (a procedural violation), she asked one of her friends to inform the judge’s clerk that she wanted a “trial by jury,” and that she did not want the “court evaluator” to have access to her medical records, if the evaluator was going to base a competency judgment on the results of the paltry mental status test. Kasoundra was legally entitled to both of these options, but her requests were ignored.
At the hearing, one of Kasoundra’s friends offered to become her guardian, but the social worker spoke out against this prospect, and the judge decided to appoint a professional guardianship agency.
Ironically, just before the hearing took place, Kasoundra’s latest liver test had come back “negative,” which meant that her medication would be discontinued and her sporadic grogginess would soon dissipate, which it subsequently did. But no doctor or social worker from the hospital brought up the results of Kasoundra’s latest liver test –– or its import –– at the hearing.
In her ruling, Judge Visitacion-Lewis stipulated that Kasoundra should be returned home with appropriate homecare services provided, or, if that proved too difficult because of the stairs, Kasoundra should be placed in an assisted-living facility “in her community.” (Since Lott House was the only such facility that accepted Medicaid, it was not only the most desirable but also the only option.) The judge also stipulated that the guardian should confer on all important matters with Kasoundra and work closely with her friends to insure that her needs were met. None of the judge’s directives were followed.
Kasoundra’s third problem was her guardian, Judah Samet of United Guardianship Services. Ignoring the judge’s orders, he promptly whisked Kasoundra to a nursing home in New Rochelle — far from her community and friends. Kasoundra was confined to a bed with a loud buzzer that went off every time she tried to get out of bed. She received no physical exercise, and soon her leg muscles began to atrophy. Even after her friends discovered where she was, they were unable to contact her because she had no working telephone. She remained isolated and alone for months.
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The trials of collage artist Kasoundra Kasoundra