|Sandra Wood has spend the past four months recuperating from broken bones after a fall. Photo by Jeff Prince.|
When Sandra Wood saw Billy Mittell earlier this month, the mute man
with Down syndrome was making a sign created by putting his fingers
together to fashion what looks like a roof. It’s the sign for “home.”
Mittell was telling Wood he wanted her to take him back to where they
lived for 30 years. It’s the same sign he was making the last time they
saw each other back in January.
Mittell wasn’t born to Sandra Wood, but he latched onto her strongly
once she became his legal guardian in 1986. Mittell, who spent his early
years living in group homes with other mentally challenged patients,
was thrilled to be taken in by Wood and given his own room in a real
house. The woman he called “mother” loved him as if he were her flesh
But plenty has been broken in Wood’s life recently, most notably her
heart. More literally, you can include two legs, an arm, and several
teeth. It’s been a rough summer following a horrible winter.
The Fort Worth Weekly introduced Wood to readers in a 2016 cover
story that described how a probate court judge removed her as Mittell’s
primary caretaker (“Torn Apart,” March 16).
The 71-year-old Fort Worth resident was distraught after Adult
Protect Services workers took Mittel in January, put him in a group
home, and prevented Wood from seeing him. Mittell has no known relatives
and had long relied on Wood for his basic needs and protection. They
became a tight-knit duo that spent most days venturing out to eat lunch,
playing bingo, visiting friends, feeding ducks at parks, and doing most
anything else that was fun. Wood had carted Mittell to the same barber
twice a month since the 1980s, and she even paid for regular manicures
and pedicures for Mittell because he enjoyed them so much.
At a bingo hall on January 3, Mittel stumbled and fell in a parking
lot. Wood took him to a hospital. Mittel’s injuries were not serious.
And he had gone years without any health problems under Wood’s care. But
a hospital nurse questioned Wood’s ability to care for Mittel. A swarm
of social workers, medical professionals, and probate court
representatives descended on Wood in the following days and quickly
removed Wood’s guardian status. Mittel was gone.
Court officials will not discuss ongoing cases, but Aaron Shutt spoke
to me about Wood and Mittell. Shutt is a board member of Guardianship
Services Inc., the agency composed of case managers assigned by probate
court judges to make decisions regarding a client’s housing, medical
treatment, and money management.
“I understand that this is her son by all practical purposes,” Shutt
said. “It is not our business to keep families apart. But our duty is to
do what is best for the ward, and that is a delicate balance
In 2015, the Texas Legislature established the “least restrictive
services” law, an act that more stridently requires guardianship to be
considered as a last resort. Still, probate judges have shown in the
past that they can interpret laws and dole out justice in most any
manner they choose, including making decisions in closed hearings
without family members being present and stripping defendants of their
right to hire their own attorneys.
Wood began an immediate campaign to re-establish herself as guardian
and get Mittel back home. She discovered what many people in Tarrant
County have learned in the past 25 years –– local probate courts have
established a network of medical care providers, attorneys, bankers,
investigators, and professional guardians to take control of family
situations gone awry. Many of those families say that the probate
judges, however, are most interested in removing people from their
families. Often times, group homes and other care facilities receive
funding based on how many patients they serve. Banks are paid to watch
the money. Attorneys and investigators are paid for their appointments.
Many of those same people support the judges financially during
Wood discovered that none of the social workers wanted to talk to
her, much less tell her where Mittel had been taken. Court officials
told her to lawyer up. Wood has little money to pay for a long court
battle against a powerful probate judge and a well-oiled guardianship
Wood, overweight and diabetic, became distraught. Her appetite waned.
She lost 50 pounds in three months. Her blood sugar levels fluctuated,
and she became dizzy at times.
Wood called me on May 11 and said she had reached a caseworker by
telephone and been given an opportunity to visit with Mittel in person
at his group home later that week. Wood wanted me to go with her. I
agreed but didn’t hear back from her. My phone calls to her went
Three months passed. On August 24, I was sitting at my desk, thought
of Wood, and called her cellphone number. She answered from a hospital
bed, where she had been lying since the day after we had last spoken.
Back in May, she had awakened, climbed out of bed, and headed toward the
“I was walking down the hall thinking, ‘Should I make scrambled eggs
or hard-boiled eggs?,’ and two days later I woke up, and I was lying on
the floor,” she said.
A married couple and their two young children who live next door to
her South Fort Worth home had come over to check on Wood. They found her
“When I opened my eyes, all of them were standing over me,” Wood
recalled. “I was bleeding from the mouth because I had knocked out a
bunch of teeth. I woke up spitting teeth. The little boy picked one up
and said, ‘Do you have to take this to the doctor?’ I said, ‘No, just
put it in the trash.’ ”
The neighbors called an ambulance, and an EMT discovered Wood’s blood
sugar was dangerously low. Doctors at Texas Health Harris Methodist
Hospital treated her fractures, but Wood hasn’t been able to visit a
dentist and still has half-broken teeth in her mouth.
Wood said her collapse is a direct result of having Mittel stripped away from her.
“I had been crying all the time and was upset all the time,” she said. “That kind of stress kills you. I miss [Mittel] so much.”
Once Wood began recovering, she resumed her calls to the probate
court and its guardianship workers, trying to arrange a visit with
Mittel. But her messages went unanswered, she said.
Probate court investigator Jeffery Arnier had sent a letter to Wood
in May saying that “there is nothing preventing you from visiting
[Mittel] and being a part of his life.” Arnier closed the letter by
writing, “To my understanding, Guardianship Services, Inc. has not
restricted you from access to [Mittel] and continuing to be a part of
Wood, however, couldn’t get anyone at Guardianship Services to talk to her, other than when she was told to get a lawyer.
I visited Wood at her hospital room on August 26 and found her in
good spirits despite being confined to a wheelchair. She had lost
another 50 pounds on top of the previous 50 pounds and looked like a
different person than she was nine months ago when Mittel was removed
from her home.
“Wow, you’ve lost weight,” I said.
“Well, that’s one way to lose it,” she said.
A court representative had told Wood that someone with the group home
would be bringing Mittel for a visit on September 2 at Renaissance Park
Multi-Care Center, where Wood was recuperating in west Fort Worth.
Wood, however, was not given a specific time when Mittel would arrive. I
wanted to document the reunion with pictures and a story and asked Wood
to call me as soon as Mittel arrived. I could drive to Renaissance
within about 20 minutes.
Wood called that afternoon to say Mittel had just arrived and for me
to come quickly. I jumped in my truck and drove straight there. But by
the time I arrived, the group home leader had already taken Mittel away.
The visit had been a short one.
“They came in and weren’t here 20 minutes,” she said.
Scott Gordon, a patient at Renaissance, was sitting in the lobby and
described seeing the reunion between Mittel and Wood. Many of the
Renaissance residents came out of their rooms to see the reunion, he
said, because everyone had heard Wood talking about the reunion for
“He went right up to her and hugged her,” Gordon said. “He was
excited to see her. You can see the connection. You can’t doubt it. It
is very evident that he loves Sandy.”
Mittel was unhappy when the reunion was cut short.
“He didn’t want to leave,” Gordon said.
Wood hated to see him go. But she was thrilled at the same time. She
had finally been able to hug, squeeze, and talk to Mittel for the first
time since January.
Wood is recuperating at home now and requesting another visit from Mittell.
Shutt, the guardianship board member, doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“It is my understanding that they were setting up a schedule whereby
there could be regular visits between” Wood and Mittell, he said.
“The intent of Guardianship Services is to allow access and visitation.”
Wood, though, wants more than visitation. She is trying to raise
money to hire an attorney to become re-established as Mittel’s guardian.
She wants Mittel to move back into his room, which is still furnished
and decorated like it was on the day that social workers took him away.
“He wants to be with me,” Wood said.
He wants to be “home.”
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