Friday, January 25, 2008

Massachusetts Senior Citizens

The Boston Globe reports: Dawn Cromwell dares not leave her building. If she tried, a device girding her ankle would sound an alarm. For over a year, she has had to use store-bought reading glasses because her pleas for a prescription pair have gone for naught. She is given medications, but, she says, no one will tell her what they are. For 20 months now, Cromwell's life has been defined by a 10.5-by-12.5-foot living space at North End Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. In her tiny closet, there are virtually no clothes, and she has no idea what's become of the cherished possessions in the Boylston Street apartment where she lived for years. At 73, Cromwell is one of hundreds of forgotten docket numbers in Massachusetts probate and family courts, where judges routinely fast-track infirm elders into the care of guardians, often with little evidence to justify such wrenching decisions.

Apparently, the Cromwell case typifies an everyday practice in Massachusetts probate courts.

The Boston Globe also reports: "After the court declares someone mentally ill and appoints a guardian, for all practical purposes most of the patients officially vanish. Almost none of the state's probate courts have any mechanism to track their whereabouts, monitor their treatment, determine whether they have recovered enough to reclaim their freedom and autonomy, or even learn whether they are dead or alive.

Handcuffed by an antiquated computer system, the courts know how many cases are filed but do not know how many people judges put under the control of guardians each year. The number in Massachusetts each year almost certainly exceeds 2,000.

Virtually unregulated, guardians, many of them lawyers and social workers, regularly ignore requirements that they file an initial inventory of assets of the people they are responsible for and an annual accounting of how they managed a person's finances. In Suffolk Probate Court, where five years of guardianship filings were examined, there were no financial reports in 85 percent of the cases."

Source: Courts strip elders of their independence

The Boston Globe found: "There were 308 cases filed in Suffolk in the past five years involving people who were entrusted to guardians after they were ruled to be mentally ill. In 72 percent of the cases, mostly filed by hospitals and nursing homes, the medical certifications were so brief - some just a sentence or two - or so vague that they fell well short of what the court requires. Many were handwritten, some illegibly.

The court's form states: "Describe in detail the diagnosis leading to the aforementioned opinion (including the types of decisions which the proposed ward has sufficient mental ability to make)." An examination could find no cases in which the petition cited any decisions patients could make on their own - and no evidence in the files or audiotapes of hearings that judges objected to the scant evidence before them.

A study coauthored last year by Jennifer Moye, a Harvard Medical School and Veterans Administration psychologist who specializes in gerontology, compared medical certifications in guardianship cases in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. Massachusetts fared worst. The study found that in 154 cases in Massachusetts, the median length of the medical certification was 83 words. In one case, it was just seven words."

Paula M. Carey, the new chief justice of Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, is quoted as saying "I recognize that we in Massachusetts are not in the forefront in terms of guardianship reform" and "We are now making significant efforts."

NASGA certainly hopes that Massachusetts takes a good hard look at the broken guardianship system, repairs it with reformed legislation, and holds firmly accountable any and all hospitals, judges, lawyers and guardians whom under the guise of "protection" have failed our precious senior citizens.

See also:
Old, sick, and unbefriended

Disrespecting our elders

Angry, MGH heart patient challenged process

Court strips elders of their independence:
The article was reported and written for a graduate seminar in Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University by eight students: Nicholas Coates, Meghan Gargan, Jeff Kelly, Maggie Kowalski, Candice Novak, Yerina Ranjit, Amanda Smith, and Richard Thompson. Their work was overseen and this article was edited by Northeastern journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson's e-mail address is Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.

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