Monday, September 14, 2015

With new guardians, wards gain new hope

Lizzie Jolley spent most days alone in an East Side nursing home, asleep in bed or slumped in a wheelchair with a TV blaring.

Then last summer, the Columbus lawyer who served as her court-appointed guardian abruptly resigned amid allegations that he was stealing from some of his wards. Jolley was assigned a new guardian, Sonya Evans, and that’s when her life began to change.

Evans — an 80-year-old retired teacher and a volunteer guardian with the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging — is known for bringing hope to people who have been cast aside. She has a knack for figuring out what makes them tick.

Evans saw immediately that Jolley wasn’t getting enough stimulation. At 101, Jolley is still in excellent health, aside from a few minor medical problems and a fading memory. So Evans arranged for Jolley to move to a small nursing home on the Far North Side, a place with more activities, better ratings and a higher staff-to-resident ratio than her previous home.

Now, the two women take turns reading children’s books during Evans’ weekly visits. That helps Jolley remember cherished memories from her past.

From those sessions and their conversations, Evans has learned that Jolley grew up in Montezuma, Ga., a town of about 3,500 people, and that she might have worked as a seamstress, a cook or both after she moved to Columbus. Jolley also has told Evans that she was married and divorced twice and that she has a daughter, a sister and a brother, whom Evans hopes to track down.

“I think I was born to a private detective,” Evans joked.

But most of all, Jolley and Evans enjoy making music together. Wearing her best Sunday hat one recent morning, Jolley soulfully sang the lyrics to When the Saints Go Marching In as Evans played the piano. Drawn by the sweet sound, another woman living at the Highbanks Care Center joined the duo in their impromptu concert of Jolly’s favorite songs, including Amazing Grace and What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

After 45 minutes of singing and dancing, Jolley nodded off in her wheelchair — only to wake up and begin singing and humming again.

“We have such wonderful times,” Jolley told Evans before giving her a kiss goodbye. “I love you."

Jolley is one of about 475 vulnerable people — children, senior citizens and those with mental illnesses and other disabilities — who made up the caseload of Paul S. Kormanik.

Believed to be responsible for more wards than nearly anyone else in the nation, Kormanik was featured in a May 2014 Dispatch series that showed how Ohio’s broken guardianship system failed to protect some of its most-vulnerable residents.

A year after resigning from all of his cases and briefly checking himself into a local hospital for mental-health treatment, Kormanik pleaded guilty in August to four counts of theft from an elderly or disabled person, one count of theft and five counts of tampering with records. He has surrendered his law license and faces a maximum of 23 years in prison when he is sentenced on Oct. 20 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

But what has happened to those in his care?

After a lot of hand-wringing and scrambling, more than 300 of his wards have been placed with permanent guardians. Like Evans, many of the new guardians have worked to get to know their charges so they can live the lives they want and deserve.

“It’s been a daunting, exhausting task,” Groveport lawyer John Mashburn said.

After about 30 years, Mashburn, 66, is one of central Ohio’s longest-serving guardians. Even with about 200 cases of his own, he temporarily took over 328 of Kormanik’s wards until the Franklin County Probate Court could find permanent caretakers.

“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Mashburn said of his team, which includes another lawyer, a paralegal, a social worker and support staff.

About 100 of those charges remain in his care. He hopes to keep as many as 50 and turn the rest over to the county’s new nonprofit guardianship agency.

The brainchild of Probate Judge Robert G. Montgomery, the new agency is expected to begin taking cases in the next few weeks. Its board will focus on helping the county’s hardest-to-serve residents, typically those with a mental illness who don’t live in a nursing home or other group setting and often require a lot of time and attention.

The three-person board of directors is appointed by Montgomery and by members of the county’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board and the Board of Developmental Disabilities. There’s also an executive director and social workers.

Known as the Franklin County Guardianship Services Board, the agency hopes to attract volunteers and interns to help care for the wards and raise money to meet their needs, Montgomery said. “Historically, being a guardian was an honor and a privilege. We want it to be that way again, and we know that this new approach is going to make a difference in many lives.”

Other agencies also stepped forward to help Kormanik’s wards.

The Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging’s volunteer guardians looked at 150 files, visited 75 wards and settled on nearly 50 cases they thought they could help, said Julia Nack, director of the program.

That number would have been lower if the program’s volunteer pool hadn’t grown by 30 people in the past year, she said, crediting The Dispatch stories with raising awareness about the need.

The number of Kormanik’s cases has “really inundated us, but thanks to our wonderful volunteers, we’re providing as much nurturing and care as we can,” Nack said. “And it’s paying off with many of the wards really blossoming.”  (Continue Reading)

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With new guardians, wards gain new hope


Sylvia Rudek said...

Applause and standing ovation to the volunteers and the Dispatch for their dedication to publicize the truth of a failed system that protects the negligent, abusive, uncaring guardians.

Finny said...

I hope so. I hope the new guardians are mostly family members.

StandUp said...

Volunteers are the key to reform!

Lynn said...

I agree, Stand. Volunteers make it happen. We need volunteers in every state to keep the professionals in shape.