“I really think the only reason they have guardianships is to take assets away from families,” David Heater of Albuquerque told the 16-member New Mexico Adult Guardianship Commission during a public meeting at the Capitol.
“I’ve never seen any protection,” Heater said. “They just take and take until it’s all gone, and then there is no justice. … Nobody wants to investigate. All the information is kept secret, which is really strange because if you want justice, you gotta follow the money.”
Heater’s frustration was shared by other members of the public who addressed the commission Friday, sharing stories of how the courts have allowed unchecked abuses by corporate guardians and lawyers. In some cases, people testified, the guardianship system has left adults needing protection worse off than they were before state courts got involved.
The New Mexico Supreme Court appointed the commission in April and tasked it with recommending changes to the guardianship system, which is intended to provide aid to people who lack the capacity to make decisions about their own care and financial management — usually elderly people and people with mental illness or developmental disabilities. But the commission has been listening to concerns from people around the state about abuses of the system, too much secrecy, and procedural barriers and delays that have left people without the protections they need.
Retired Santa Fe elementary school teacher Lorraine Mendiola told The New Mexican that when she petitioned the court to name her the legal guardian for her adult son, who has a mental illness, the lawyer she hired told her moments before a hearing that she had asked the court to appoint someone else as the son’s legal guardian. The would allow Mendiola to be “just be mom,” the attorney told her.
Mendiola said she was so surprised and intimidated by the court system that she didn’t know what to do. So, she allowed the court to appoint a corporate guardian for her son.
Her son had “horrific experiences,” as a result, Mendiola said, including being physically assaulted by another resident at one boarding home, smoking marijuana and being offered heroin at another home, and being arrested and institutionalized repeatedly because of a lack of supervision.
Every time that happens, she said, her son is stabilized, then discharged and placed in another home with “horrific conditions.”
Once, she said, he was sent to live in a converted garage.
“The guardian does not inspect homes before placing the client,” Mendiola told commissioners Friday.
Kelley Smoot-Garrett, who drove to Santa Fe from Austin, Texas, to address the commission about experiences she had when her late mother was involved in New Mexico’s guardianship system, told The New Mexican that a court-appointed trustee had used her mother’s credit card for 11 months after her mother died.
Friday’s meeting, held at the Roundhouse, was the first time the 16-member panel has met publicly in Santa Fe since it was appointed by the Supreme Court in April. Meetings also have been held in Albuquerque and Las Cruces to gather comments.
The commission is tasked with delivering a preliminary report to the Supreme Court on its findings about the guardianship system Oct. 1.
It intends to hold three more public meetings in Albuquerque before then, on Aug. 11, Sept. 1 and Sept. 29, but hasn’t yet announced meeting locations.
Commission members voted unanimously Friday to ask for State Attorney General Hector Balderas’ opinion on whether the panel is subject to the state Open Meetings Act.
Patricia Galindo, a staff attorney for the Administrative Office of the Courts and a commission member, said she thought the panel isn’t subject to the law because it was created by the Supreme Court, which is exempt. Still, Galindo said, the commission is complying with the law by holding public meetings, as well as publishing advance notice of meetings and posting agendas and public comments on its website.
But commission member Jorja Armijo-Brasher, director of Albuquerque’s Department of Senior Affairs, made a motion to request the attorney general’s opinion.
“Why not be as transparent as possible?” Armijo-Brasher asked. “It’s clearly a public concern that the existing system is too secret and too much of an insider game.”
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.com.
Correction, July 15, 2017
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the times and locations of upcoming meetings haven’t been set. Commission member Patricia Galindo said the exact locations of the three meetings, all in Albuquerque, haven’t been determined, but the meetings are scheduled Aug. 11, Sept. 1 and Sept. 29.
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Guardianship commission hears troubling testimony