|Simone Jarvis, Ellen Starkka and Oscar Camacho|
Those complaints, by relatives of those Susan Gerber cared for, date back a year and recently prompted a Crow Wing County district judge to remove Gerber from all 13 of her cases.
Some of her wards’ family members alleged that Gerber, who operated Honorable Guardian Services, rarely responded to their phone messages and failed to pay her clients’ bills on time, resulting in threats to cancel services, disconnect utilities, evict the wards and cut off their medications.
“My mother has worked hard for her money but is receiving no pleasure from it,” Sheila Ruling wrote Crow Wing County District Court in March, demanding an investigation of the way Gerber was overseeing the accounts of Jeanne Baardson, who has dementia. “Her health, welfare and safety are at risk.”
The case against Gerber began building momentum in June, when Nathan Bertram, Crow Wing County community services coordinator, recommended she be barred from acting as a guardian after finding “gross neglect” in another case and noting that other, similar complaints were being investigated.
“Even if Social Services has not been involved, we feel that it would be inappropriate for Susan Gerber to remain as guardian on any case,” Bertram wrote the court, adding that the wards’ well-being was in jeopardy.
Sandra Larson, an adult protection investigator, followed up a month later with a letter stating that Gerber had been found to be mistreating vulnerable adults. Gerber did not appeal that finding, Larson noted.
Soon after, District Judge David Ten Eyck issued an emergency order stripping Gerber of her guardianship and conservatorship appointments. After she ignored an earlier order to bring overdue client financial records and an inventory of assets to court on July 18, Ten Eyck took the rare step of ordering Gerber’s arrest on contempt charges.
Ten Eyck sentenced Gerber to six months in jail, suspending all but 10 days providing that she comply with future court orders. Gerber, who was released from jail Aug. 6, did not respond to requests for comment.
Gerber’s attorney, John Chitwood, said in an interview after a recent court hearing that Gerber is being treated for “an enormous amount of health problems.”
Gerber, a single mother of three teenagers, formed her professional guardianship business in 2014, a year after graduating from Bemidji State University with a degree in social work. Before that, she had been a licensed dental assistant.
Although records filed in several of her guardianship and conservatorship cases say she has never filed for bankruptcy, court records show that she and her husband filed for Chapter 7 liquidation of their debts in Ohio in 2003. They divorced in 2007, and court records show he was $66,499 in arrears on child support payments last year.
In Minnesota, guardians make important decisions for vulnerable wards under the auspices of the court, including who they see and what they can do with their lives. Conservators make spending decisions and manage accounts. Gerber has served in both roles.
Taken at face value, the paperwork in her cases indicates that she was a watchful overseer of her clients’ lives.
Gerber became the guardian and conservator for Levi Albert Frink, who was suffering from prostate cancer, severe depression and a stroke, in January 2015. She quickly took steps to protect him from his longtime girlfriend, who later was sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty of financial exploitation.
Frink’s daughters, Monica Peterson and Charis Oothoudt, of Washington state, praised Gerber’s care and said she seemed to have her father’s best interests at heart, though Oothoudt said Gerber has not provided a final accounting since his death last October.
The children of Ellen Starkka, 83, of Crosslake, Minn., however, have a harsher view of Gerber.
Starkka suffers from multiple system atrophy, a disorder that gradually shuts down vital bodily systems. Her husband, Ernie Starkka, had cared for his wife at home and promised that she’d never end up in a nursing home, but her care suffered as his own health declined, their children say.
When hospice workers raised concerns about his wife’s care, Ernie Starkka said he didn’t want any of his children to serve as her guardian, according to their daughter Starr Jarvis, a registered nurse who stayed with her parents part time in recent years.
The court appointed Gerber as guardian and conservator in May 2015. In November, Gerber notified the court that she had been unable to complete a required inventory of Ellen Starkka’s assets and alleged that her children interfered and were removing her personal property. She called police, but said they declined to pursue the matter.
Family members denied the accusations in interviews and said that they had problems with Gerber from the get-go.
Dan Starkka, of Baxter, Minn., said that when he first met Gerber at his parents’ home in June 2015, she was scolding his father, who died about two months later. He said that Gerber seldom responded to his phone calls — even urgent ones — and that her assistant failed to show for several appointments with his mother. He said after he hired a lawyer to replace Gerber, she responded by falsely accusing him of stealing his parents’ personal property.
Jarvis and her brother recalled a particularly humiliating period after their mother was removed from hospice care because her health wasn’t declining quickly enough to continue with the program, which is designed to serve people with less than six months to live. The hospice service removed its medical equipment — including a hospital bed and portable commode — but arranged for a supplier to bring in replacements, they said. When the equipment failed to arrive, they called the supplier, who informed them that Gerber had canceled the order because she was planning to move their mother to a nursing home.
“For a week there we had to put my mom on a five-gallon bucket [to relieve herself] because there was nothing else we could do,” Dan Starkka said.
Concerns about Gerber began to surface publicly in several Crow Wing County court files in February and March.
The court removed Gerber as guardian and conservator of Lavern Nystrom, who suffers from the aftermath of strokes and seizures, in February in response to an emergency petition that said the check for his housing had bounced, his care costs had gone unpaid for three months, and his pharmacy refused to fill prescriptions, citing an unpaid balance of $3,500. The pharmacy reported that its calls to Gerber went unanswered for three months.
Even before complaints surfaced in court records, some raised concerns about Gerber.
Sheila Ruling and her brother Robert Eng began questioning the treatment of their mother, Jeanne Baardson, 85, soon after Gerber was appointed as guardian and conservator in August 2015.
Gerber got into conflicts with another of Baardson’s daughters, Deb Eng, accusing her of misspending her mother’s money. Deb Eng and Baardson’s personal caregiver, Tracy Joppru, complained that Gerber refused to leave Baardson any cash for outings to McDonald’s with her friends, and refused her pleas for money for small purchases, such as a new outfit for Thanksgiving, alleging that the family would steal it.
Although Baardson could afford to pay her bills, Joppru said, Gerber failed to keep up, which led to shut-off notices, the cancellation of her homeowner’s insurance and her beloved newspaper subscription.
“Susan even tried to have me fired when I was raising some questions toward the end,” Joppru said.
Robert Eng said he demanded that Gerber produce a year-end accounting and cash flow statement for his mother’s accounts, but she was unwilling to do so. “So that’s what triggered me to going to the authorities and say I had this great concern,” he said.
Ruling, who works in Texas in behavioral health and protective services, said Gerber isolated her mother from family and friends.
“My mother was a prisoner,” she said.
Ruling said she blames Gerber for precipitating her mother’s death. They got into an argument one day over money and Baardson went home so upset that she ended up choking on food. Baardson was rushed to the hospital, where she later died.
Joppru said Baardson’s newspaper delivery resumed the next day.
“Elderly people toward the end of their lives shouldn’t have to go through this kind of chaos,” Joppru said. “It’s just not right.”
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Crow Wing County guardian stripped of her duties following neglect allegations