Mary, one of four Darnell children, had moved back to the 17-acre horse ranch where she had grown up to become the on-site caretaker for her 78-year-old mother, Blair Darnell, who had been experiencing memory problems.
As the cousin wrapped up her cutlery presentation, Mary noticed several cars parked in front of the larger home where her mother lived about 500 feet away. Bracing the cold, Mary, then 45, headed out to check on her mother and see who had come to visit. What she encountered would change their lives forever.
In her mother’s house, around the kitchen table, sat a group of unfamiliar women from an elder care company called Decades LLC.
“All these people were walking around (Mother’s) house looking at everything, and I thought, this is weird,” Mary said. “They hand me a stack of papers. A woman named Nancy Oriola from Decades told me there had been a court hearing and (Mother) was being put under temporary guardianship and conservatorship.”
Unbeknown to the rest of the Darnell family, Kris Darnell-Kreger’s attorney, Gregory MacKenzie, had filed an emergency petition with the court two days earlier. In it, MacKenzie asked District Judge Beatrice Brickhouse to appoint professional outsiders to handle Blair’s affairs – both an attorney to act as guardian ad litem to look out for the elderly woman’s personal protection and a financial conservator to control her estimated $5 million estate.
MacKenzie alleged both financial and medical improprieties, primarily against Mary Darnell, as reasons for court intervention. A review of the court docket from that time period does not list an actual hearing being held.
The next day, Jan. 7, 2010, Judge Brickhouse signed an order granting the appointments MacKenzie sought. MacKenzie’s petition cites no law to substantiate the need for an emergency intervention or for it to be granted without a hearing. But the wheels of New Mexico’s elder guardianship system had been set in motion, and for the next 90 days three court appointees, including a qualified health care professional, were instructed to assess Blair Darnell’s situation.
On Feb. 16, Mary Darnell, two of her other siblings and their mother went to that initial hearing to try to understand what was happening. None was allowed to address the court to defend against the allegations made in MacKenzie’s petition. The siblings’ motion to remove the temporary guardian and conservator so they could continue to care for their mother was denied. At this hearing, Mary says, Judge Brickhouse received recommendations from her three temporary appointees and without speaking directly to Blair Darnell or any of her four adult children made the temporary guardianship a permanent arrangement.
District Judge Nan Nash, chief of the 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, responded to written questions from the Journal about the initial steps in the guardian system. Asked whether a judge requires a petitioning attorney to substantiate allegations made against family members, she wrote, “The guardianship petition is not taken at face value. The statutory framework includes precautions to keep that from happening.”
Mary Darnell insists her mother, who she says was suffering from early stages of dementia at that point, was perfectly capable of appearing in court.
Oriola, CEO of Decades LLC, which was brought in for Blair Darnell’s case, said in an email response to the Journal her firm provides high-quality care and defended the professional guardian system, saying it was created to protect elders from abuse by family members.
‘Ward of the court’
The legal effect of Brickhouse’s ruling was to immediately reduce Blair to protected-person status, a “ward of the court,” and strip her of all her civil rights. Blair Darnell lost her right to manage her own money, sign a contract, vote, marry, decide where she could travel, who could come into her home and what doctors and medicines she could use. Every aspect of her life was to be decided by court appointees who were strangers.
Suddenly, Blair Darnell had fewer rights than a convicted murderer.
“Everyone was being very quiet and hush-hush and scurrying around,” Mary remembered of that January afternoon she stumbled upon the baffling scene in her mother’s home. “And then they whisked Mother off because they thought my sister and I were going to get into an argument and they didn’t want her to be affected by our conversations. I’m, like, ‘Where are you taking her?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have to disclose that.’ ”
Close examination of the secretive court process that overtook Blair Darnell in her final years is both illuminating and frightening because it could happen without notice to any family with an elderly parent. It is a process designed to protect the elderly, but many New Mexico families say it does the opposite, draining hard-earned estates and often isolating seniors from the loved ones who are most familiar with their wishes. (Click to Continue)
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Who guards the guardians?