NEW FAIRFIELD — The grit and the grace that animate Lou Russo
face belies the desperate place the World War II veteran was in a few
seasons ago at the hands of a court-appointed conservator.
“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
Russo’s story ended with a hero’s welcome home because two
young friends stepped in to fight for him, bringing the conservator’s
misconduct to the attention of the press, police and politicians. But
there’s a sentiment among those who know his story that Russo never
should have been mistreated.
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.”
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
“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
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
“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