“I will never forget it, because I was treated like a bag of dirt in the street,” the 98-year-old bachelor says of the 17 months he spent against his will in a nursing home while his conservator drained his bank account, scrapped his construction trucks and rented out his house. “Sometimes I dream about it at night and think, ‘What the hell happened to me?’”
Lawmakers in Hartford concur.
State politicians and the probate court itself are pushing for legislation to encourage more effective guardianship of the elderly and incapacitated. The legislation would create formal standards for conservators and provide for random audits to prevent exploitation.
“We are joining a nationwide effort to strengthen oversight in conservatorships,” said Paul Knierim, Connecticut’s probate court administrator. “We are working with groups nationwide to improve preventative measures so that conservators get the support they need to act with the utmost integrity.”
Although Russo’s mistreatment is not thought to be typical of the thousands of cases across Connecticut, in which people incapable of managing their own affairs are appointed guardians by probate court, cases like his are clearly part of the push in Hartford for reform.
“This is about Lou Russo, no doubt,” said state Sen. Michael McLachlan, a co-author of the bill and a vice chair of the state legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee, which is reviewing it. “Unfortunately there are other cases similar to Lou’s, but he is the local face of this problem.”
The legislation’s intent is intended to support thousands of family members appointed by the court to manage the health and finances of loved ones incapacitated by age or mental affliction, but also to discourage misconduct by auditing conservators’ accounts for fraud.
“Anything that increases oversight is always welcome,” said Dan Gaita, a former Marine who at one point was the only person advocating for Russo’s rights. “There are still unresolved issues with Lou’s case, but we are trying to let him enjoy his life.”
The legislation comes at the same time that the probate court is rolling out a statewide training program to help conservators navigate increasingly complex systems of health care, property management and public assistance programs.
“The world is getting more complicated, and we have heard a consistent drumbeat from conservators and judges telling us a formal training program is warranted,” Knierim said. “No single person can reasonably be expected to master all this stuff.”
The accountability legislation also comes at a time when the population is aging in Connecticut and across the country,
Nationwide, the number of people 65 and older is expected to jump from the current 46 million to 88 million by 2050, according to federal Government Accounting Office. In Connecticut, the AARP estimates that 600,000 people are 50 or older.
“The bill ... would put Connecticut at the forefront in effective court monitoring,” said Claudio Gualtieri, advocacy director of the AARP Connecticut in testimony during a public hearing on the legislation last week. “These improvements will help protect older adults and give support to family caregivers.”
The aging trend is complicated by the prevalence of mental afflictions, the legislation’s supporters said.
For example, 75,000 people in Connecticut have Alzheimer’s disease, and thousands more have other forms of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association says.
“Due to the progressive nature of the disease, and its profound impact on the victim’s ability to make even the most basic decisions regarding their health care and other financial matters, many people with dementia end up being conserved,” said Ian MacDonald, public policy director for the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association in testimony.
Those who know Russo’s story might immediately think of his quick wit or his gracious spirit, which was on display during a recent Veterans Day celebration, when volunteers built a stage in the back yard of his New Fairfield home to hold all the VIPs who came to honor him with speeches and plaques.
It might be hard for those who know him now to remember how brokenhearted and powerless the combat veteran was in 2013, when he was admitted against his will at a Danbury nursing home while his court-appointed conservator disposed of everything he owned.
A social worker had reported the partly collapsed roof and poor general condition of Russo’s home, and Probate Court Judge Martin Landgrebe ruled that Russo needed a conservator.
Had Russo had able-bodied family members nearby, the judge might have appointed one of them to manage Russo’s return to health and oversee home repairs. As it was, Russo was single and alone, so the judge appointed a businessman named Mark Broadmeyer to manage his affairs.
Instead, Broadmeyer sold Russo’s possessions and rented his home to another family.
After persistent objections by Gaita, Landgrebe eventually reviewed the conservator’s records and ordered Broadmeyer to repay Russo $34,000. But at that point, Russo’s nursing home bill had accumulated to $100,000.
When the nursing home offered to settle with Russo for a mere $10,000, Russo’s response was “That’s how much they should pay me.”
In the end, the nursing home dropped all claims, saying Russo had suffered enough.
Today, Russo is living in the home he built himself under the conservatorship of Joseph Schirmer of Danbury, one of the leading volunteers in Lou’s life, who not only accompanied him to court with Gaita, but helped organize the corps of volunteers who remodeled Russo’s home.
Schirmer said he was pleased about news of the legislation in Hartford.
“We know how bad the system is,” Schirmer said. “People have to be held accountable.”
Knierim said the legislation was not drafted in response to any one case but agreed that egregious cases of abuse such as Russo’s were alarming.
“Most definitely this legislation is a recognition that seniors and individuals with disabilities can be vulnerable to neglect, abuse and financial exploitation, and that is a very high priority for us in the probate court system,” he said. “We try to learn from every case that doesn’t go the way it should.”
McLachlan said there was no opposition to the legislation.
The next step is for the Judiciary Committee to vote on the legislation, and determine whether it can be voted on in the Senate and the House of Representatives, he said.
“The sad thing about this is Lou had to serve as an example of why we need this legislation,” McLachlan said.
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Bill would require monitoring of court-appointed guardians