It all started when Denise Tighe passed out at a restaurant
in her North Texas hometown. The 85-year-old was taken to the hospital, deemed
incapable of properly caring for herself and became a ward of the state against
After she was assigned a guardian in 2011, she was taken to a nursing home 20
miles from her hometown near Fort Worth, which she adamantly protested, and her
home and a lifetime of jewelry and antiques were put up for sale. She died in
January with friends and family questioning whether the state did her more harm
Now one of Tighe’s
friends, Virginia Pritchett, is pointing to what happened to Tighe as an
example of a broken adult guardianship system in Texas.
Pritchett is one of about two dozen advocates who gave testimony to the state
Sunset Advisory Commission on Wednesday hoping to spur change. They say the
guardianship process is stripping the rights from competent people and dragging
them through a court system that requires them to spend thousands to protect
The push has gained momentum since the last legislative session when only a
handful of critics lobbied with little success. Since then, a coalition of
disability and elderly groups from across the state has banded together to
develop and refine a set of proposals for the next session — calling for guardianships
to be the last option and for more independence for wards of the state.
These elderly people are being warehoused in nursing homes, and these
court-appointed attorneys are going through all their money in court hearings
that the elderly people don’t even know is occurring,” said Debby Valdez with
the San-Antonio based Guardianship Reform Advocates For The Disabled & Elderly.
Adult guardianship cases are lawsuits designed to ensure vulnerable seniors and
people with disabilities are not abused, neglected or exploited. A probate
court must determine whether people are competent enough to keep themselves
safe and healthy. If the answer is no, the judge can appoint a guardian to make
medical, financial and other decisions for them.
Lawyers and judges have said that the system is protecting people and that
proposed changes would leave people more vulnerable and throw unnecessary
roadblocks into the process.
Texas has about 46,000 people in guardianship, according to the state. Between
September 2011 and August 2012, more than 4,500 adult guardianship petitions
were filed in probate courts across the state. Of those, 206 were filed in
Advocates say that guardianship should be the last option for proposed wards
and supported decision-making should be the alternative. This means allowing
people with limited disabilities to hire supporters whose jobs are strictly to
give information so they can make decisions for themselves.
“Even though it seems counterintuitive, not all people under guardianship are
totally unable to make decisions,” said Bob Kafka with the Austin-based group
Guardianship Reform and Supported Decision Making.
Supported decision-making has also garnered the support of former Texas Health
and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs.
A few years ago, the Travis County probate court appointed Suehs’ mother-in-law
a guardian ad litem, whom she paid about $300 an hour. She also hired her own
attorney to fight the process.
After $30,000 in court fees, Suehs’ mother-in-law settled the dispute in
mediation and she got her independence back.
“Some people have started using guardianship as an easy way out, to try to
attack and resolve family disputes when they don’t need to,” Suehs said. “My
own personal belief is that over the last five or six years, lawyers are
creating an industry here."
Suehs worked with lawmakers in the last legislative session for guardianship
reform, but some laws passed that did more harm than good, according to
advocates. The law that has garnered the most criticism gives guardians the
authority to decide where a ward can live and peace officers must enforce it.
“It gives the guardian the authority to call the police and say, ‘I’ve got a
court order and I can remove the little old lady from her house,’” Valdez said.
Advocates want people under guardianship to have the ability to decide where to
And guardians should be forced to visit with their wards monthly and
submit reports that are reviewed by the court, advocates say.
“Every alternative must be explored before even thinking about taking away
someone’s civil rights
,” Kafka said.
Advocates Push for Reform of Adult Guardianship System in Texas
LISTEN and WATCH the archive of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Note: fast forward to 9:27.00