Texas counties have stripped thousands of elderly and disabled citizens of their rights — and then forgotten about them.They paid their tab at the Waffle House and put the plan in motion. Phil and John Bradley guided their mother, Rosamond, to the back seat of Phil’s car, and John took the seat beside her. Driving through the familiar North Dallas streets, it wasn’t long before Rosamond realized they weren’t headed to her home.
“What are you doing?” she asked. It was John who answered, “We’re taking you to Lubbock.”
Though Rosamond protested the whole way, her sons didn’t know what else to do. It was March 2009, and at 73 she insisted on living alone, hours away from them. Sometimes she didn’t take her medication; sometimes she took too much. Phil had been awakened one night recently by a call from the Dallas police. She’d smashed her bathroom window and alarmed the neighbors with her screaming, an incident that landed her in a psychiatric hospital for six weeks.
When they arrived at Rosamond’s new home at an Alzheimer’s care center, she refused to leave the car. According to notes in her medical record, she “did exhibit some aggressive behavior.” Rosamond recalls, “I struggled and kicked John where I shouldn’t have.” A Lubbock psychiatrist described Rosamond as “expressive/noisy,” “hyperactive” and “anxious/suspicious,” noting that she exhibited “bipolar disorder, psychosis and delusions.”
“It was terrible,” Phil recalls. “There were times that she couldn’t feed herself. She would do group therapy and it was just an absolute disaster.” Still, she kept demanding to go home. So, in late April, Phil filed a request in county court for authority over his mother’s affairs. Lubbock County Judge Tom Head reviewed the doctors’ reports and appointed Lubbock attorney David Kerby to advocate on Rosamond’s behalf. Rosamond says she never met the lawyer, who did not return the Observer’s calls. Without Rosamond present, which is common in guardianship cases, Head found her legally incapacitated. Phil won the right to decide where his mother lived, who she saw and how she spent her money, even if she objected — which she did, vehemently.
Rosamond says she was so heavily medicated that she spent much of her time in a fog. She couldn’t leave the nursing home without supervision, and only heard after the fact that her sons had sold her Cadillac and begun moving furniture out of her house. She began to see the move as a ploy by her sons to access her money, and she felt helpless. “I had no contact with anybody,” she recalls. “It was like being all alone.”
Rosamond wasn’t accustomed to traveling solo. In the last 20 years, her usual adventure partner was Jim Bithas, whose late wife had been Rosamond’s high school friend in Highland Park. Together, Rosamond and Jim had filled their golden years with epic vacations — a week in Alaska, a month in Australia, three weeks on a cruise to Antarctica. Theirs, Jim says, is “a long love story,” and with every thousand-mile journey, they inched closer to making the relationship official. At home, Rosamond had a gold ring from Jim, studded with diamonds they’d combined from their jewelry collections. It was to be her wedding ring when they married. Jim says he had no idea Rosamond was being moved to Lubbock. At the nursing home, once Rosamond was able to borrow Phil’s phone, the only person she wanted to call was Jim. “Guess where I am,” she told him.
Rosamond had landed in a little-understood corner of the legal system, a court-ordered, semi-autonomous state in which, for her own good, her most basic rights were given to another person. Guardianship is the state’s last-ditch tool to protect people from neglect or abuse, and although it saves lives, it can be a blunt instrument. More than 53,000 Texans, most of them elderly or intellectually disabled, are under a guardianship today. Some could never make their own decisions; others, in the eyes of a friend or family member, have been making decisions that are dangerously wrong. In either case, the remedy is the same: Their legal rights transfer to a person of the court’s choosing. Proponents credit guardianship for celebrity success stories such as Britney Spears, whose life and career regained stability after her father won the legal authority to step in. But guardianship is in the news much more often for its abuses. (Click to continue)
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Who Guards the Guardians?