Saturday, September 19, 2020

Guardianship company to dissolve after ‘self-dealing’ $400K in contracts from elderly couple

By Justine Lofton

MACOMB COUNTY, MI – A guardianship company will dissolve after its owner illegally charged an elderly couple $400,000 for services from companies she and her husband own.

The “self-dealing” case that shows a court-appointed guardian was financially benefiting by hiring her own companies to provide services and charging a “shocking amount of money” was settled out of court by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Financial aspects of the settlement have not been released but the injunctive aspects are detailed in a news release from the AG’s office.

Guardianship company Caring Hearts Michigan Inc. will immediately cease operations and legally dissolve by the end of the year, the release said. In addition, [the owner and] her employees are permanently barred from operating any other guardianship or conservatorship entity.

Of particular concern in this case was a web of connections between [the] guardianship company and two other companies [the owner] hired to provide services to elderly people she had guardianship over.

“Our involvement in this case revealed what we feared: fiduciaries with a clear financial conflict of interest who billed a shocking amount of money in a relatively short period of time,” Nessel said.

Caring Hearts was appointed by Macomb County Probate Judge Kathryn George as both guardian and conservator for Robert Lee Mitchell and Barbara Delbridge, despite a petition submitted by the daughter and stepdaughter of the couple.

In a span of six months, Caring Hearts Michigan; Executive Care, a 24-hour in-home care company, also owned by [the owner of Caring Hearts Michigan]; and [a] law firm billed the elderly couple $400,000. Almost 72 percent of the bills were for Executive Care.

The Estates and Protected Individuals Code prohibits this kind of financial self-dealing by the guardian, Nessel said. In addition, courts are not permitted to appoint a guardian agency that financially benefits from directly providing housing, medical, mental health or social services to the legally incapacitated individual, she said.

Nessel places responsibility on the courts to ensure that the state’s guardianship system is protecting the vulnerable and that court-appointed guardians and conservators fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to those in their custody.

“To help, my team continues to look for similar instances of self-dealing and we will take swift action when it is discovered,” Nessel said.

Complaints about professional guardian or conservator entities who are engaging in similar self-dealing can be filed online with the Attorney General’s office.

Full Article & Source:

Nursing homes face threats of citations, penalties if they restrict visitor access without good cause

by Danielle Brown

CMS Administrator Seema Verma speaks Thursday in Washington D.C.

Providers who fail to facilitate in-person visitations “without a reasonable clinical or safety cause” could be cited and face other penalties under new guidance issued Thursday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The agency updated its guidance on nursing home visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which creates a framework for providers to facilitate in-home visitation, and resume communal activities and dining. 

The agency stated in a memo that it believes the guidance represents reasonable ways a nursing home can facility in-person visitation and failure to do so “without adequate reason related to clinical necessity or resident safety” would constitute a potential violation. It could also lead to a citation and enforcement actions.

“No one should be forced to weather this pandemic alone — especially the most vulnerable among us — so we’re using every lever at our disposal to ensure America’s seniors in nursing homes can continue seeing loved ones in a safe way,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote in an op-ed Thursday. 

Core principles 

The guidance explains that outdoor visits are preferred because it poses a lower risk of transmission due to increased space and airflow. Facilities should accommodate and support indoor visits, beyond compassionate care situations, if there have been no new cases in the last 14 days and visitors adhere to core principles. 

Providers must adhere to the “Core Principles of COVID-19 Infection Prevention” in order to conduct visits. Those principals include screening everyone who enters the facility, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched areas often and conducting resident and staff testing. Nursing homes can restrict access to visitors who don’t adhere to the core principles. 

Nursing homes also should limit the number of visitors per resident and the number of visitors in the facility at a single moment, and limit movement within the facility. The guidance also recommends that visits can occur at facilities in areas with low or medium COVID-19 county positivity rates; while visits at facilities in areas with high rates should only occur for compassion care situations.  

The moves come a half year after the agency suspended visitor access, communal dining and all group activities in mid-March. CMS stated though the initial guidance was focused on protecting residents from COVID-19 it has since recognized that “physical separation from family and other loved ones has taken a physical and emotional toll on residents.

“CMS understands that nursing home residents derive value from the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they receive through visitation from family and friends. In light of this, CMS is revising the guidance regarding visitation in nursing homes during the COVID-19 [public health emergency,]” the agency wrote in the memo. 

Praise for nursing home commission

Vice President Mike Pence said the release of an extensive report by a national nursing home commission laid the framework for resuming in-person visits at nursing homes.

“The recommendations’ today that will lay a framework for communities to begin opening up once again — open up for in-person visitation in our nursing homes. I know it’s going to be a blessing for families across the country,” he said during a routable discussion Thursday with several commission members. 

“Setting up this commission was a great idea. It really helped guide our efforts and essentially after looking at the results of the report it validated all of the work that we’ve done,” Verma added. 

Pence also assured that the federal government “will continue to do our part to make sure that we scale testing and provide testing supplies, including point-of-care testing that makes it possible to be able to visit.”

Full Article & Source:

Friday, September 18, 2020

Lawyer sues Netflix, area publisher and another lawyer for libel over coverage of his role in a Needham guardianship case

A Cambridge lawyer is suing Netflix, the producers of its "Dirty Money" series, the Boston Broadside and an Essex County attorney for allegedly ruining his life by portraying him as an evil money grubber out to defraud an elderly Needham man who owned five derelict properties in Needham that the town had been trying to get cleaned up for 20 years.

Nicholas Louisa filed his suit in Middlesex Superior Court last month but Lonnie Brennan, publisher of the Peabody-based Boston Broadside, which puts a right-wing spin on news on both a Web site and in a monthly newspaper, this week sought to have the case moved to federal court in Boston because of the First Amendment issues.

At issue are articles the Broadside posted in 2019, and an episode this past spring of "Dirty Money," that focused on the treatment of a lifelong Needham resident and property owner who now lives in a Dedham nursing home.

The articles and show portrayed the man as an elderly, but still lucid, man taken advantage of by a corrupt Massachusetts guardianship system out to suck money out of his holdings, as exemplified by Louisa and various lawyers appointed by Probate Court judge to represent his interests in proceedings during which one and then all of his properties were sold, initially to pay for cleaning up the properties, eventually to pay for his nursing-home expenses.

One of sources for the articles and show was Lisa Belanger, an Essex County attorney who provided them with documents from the man's court files, even though a judge had impounded them, after she tried to intercede in his case. Belanger has been writing about her own fight against the guardianship system for the Boston Broadside since 2017

In his suit, however, Louisa paints a different picture, of a confused elderly man with memory problems who had become a hoarder and who was increasingly unable to take care of his own affairs - at least one of the houses he owned in Needham were in such disrepair the town condemned it and it was torn down. Louisa writes that things came to a head in 2018 when a neighbor reported seeing what appeared to be frostbite on the man's face and authorities conducted a well being check and found the duplex he was living in filled with hundreds of bottles of urine and a dead cat in the freezer, along with the man, suffering from frostbite and hypothermia. There was no furniture in the house, just two couch cushions, and large stacks of unopened mail, including Social Security checks and bills.

Louisa writes the $3.1 million from the sale of the man's remaining properties went into a fiduciary fund for him, overseen by another lawyer, that pays his nursing-home bills and pays him a monthly stipend - out of which he can request additional funds.

In his suit, Louisa says that he's a private citizen, so only has to prove the articles and episode were wrong to successfully claim libel, but then continues that the Broadside and Netflix episode were, in fact, malicious in intent, part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Belanger and have caused "irreparable damage" to his "once sterling reputation" - as well as subjected him to a barrage of threats, harassment and even stalking. He charges he now has to let all incoming calls go to voice mail because he gets so many threatening calls and that somebody has looked up his Facebook contacts and sent them messages charging him with stealing money from the man.

He cites several examples of alleged libelous mistakes, including the allegation that he and another attorney forced the man into the Dedham nursing home to get at his money:

It was the Probate Court - not any attorneys - that looked at [the man]'s medical condition, the squalor in which he had been living, his inability to handle his own finances or take care of his own health, and found that he needed protected status for his own safety and wellbeing.

The episode also claimed that he had been ripped from his childhood home and just wanted to return to it, but Louisa says he had not lived there for at least five years - and had sold it before the rest of his holdings and that, in any case, he could not move back because the town had condemned it as uninhabitable.

All of it has combined to give him anxiety and insomnia, he writes, adding he often finds himself unable to eat, leading to rapid weight loss.

In his request to have the case moved to federal court, Brennan argues that Louisa is, in fact, a public figure, because he willingly spokes to the Needham Times in 2018 about the man's properties, which had been causing neighborhood issues for some two decades. If upheld by a judge, that would require Louisa to meet a higher burden of proof to prove libel - that the statements about him were not just wrong but malicious and printed in disregard of their veracity.

Louisa's complaint (1.7M PDF).
Brennan's petition to move case to federal court (608k PDF).

Full Article & Source:

Dickson Co. attorney permanently disbarred after stealing from trust fund of fallen Trooper's daughter

by Chuck Morris

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - The Tennessee Supreme Court entered an order permanently disbarring a Dickson County attorney from practicing law in Tennessee after he took money from a trust fund set up to provide for the daughter of a Tennessee state trooper who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in 2005.

Jack Garton set up the trust fund to provide for the 14-year-old daughter of Trooper Todd Larkins. The trust contained over $2 million from the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit.

The trust was administered out of the probate and juvenile court of Dickson County. Over a period of years, Garton began quietly disbursing trust monies to himself in the form of excessive fees. As the probate judge neared retirement, Garton began taking bolder measures to disburse more trust money to himself and hide his wrongdoing. He persuaded the judge to shield disclosure of trust transactions from Larkins' daughter, who by then was an adult. He also convinced the judge to issue an order saying that disbursements from the trust could be made without court approval.

Attorney accused of misappropriating $1 million left for daughter of fallen trooper
An attorney is accused of misappropriating more than $1 million left for the daughter of a fallen state trooper. Now the TBI is investigating what happened to that money.

Garton's scheme was uncovered when the daughter graduated from college and decided she wanted to use the trust monies to start her own business. By then Garton had secretly misappropriated well over $1 million from the trust.

In 2019, Garton was convicted of wire fraud aggravated identity theft and tax fraud. The Tennessee Supreme Court suspended his law license. After that, a hearing panel of Tennessee's Board of Professional Responsibility, which regulates lawyers in Tennessee under the authority of the Tennessee Supreme Court, found that Garton committed multiple violations of the ethics rules, including misappropriation of client funds and engaging in dishonest and fraudulent conduct. The hearing panel and the Board recommended that the Court disbar Garton.

The Court agreed and entered its order disbarring Garton on Thursday. Under a new state law enacted earlier this year, Garton will never be eligible to be reinstated to the practice of law in Tennessee.

"When lawyers engage in misconduct serious enough to warrant disbarment, citizens should be confident that they will never again have a license to practice law," Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said in a news release. "From now on, Tennessee citizens can have that confidence. The rule change adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court ensures that lawyers who are disbarred in our State will remain disbarred, and will never again have a Tennessee law license."

Until 2020, attorneys in Tennessee who had been disbarred for five years had the right under the ethics rules to ask the Supreme Court to reinstate them, no matter how bad the misconduct.

In January, the Tennessee Supreme Court amended its rules on discipline of lawyers to state that attorneys who are "disbarred on or after July 1, 2020, are not eligible for reinstatement." The change means that attorneys who are disbarred after July 1 are permanently disbarred and can not ask the Court to reinstate their law license.

Garton is the first case to take effect after the new rule was enacted. 

Full Article & Source:


COVID costs squeeze Ohio nursing homes

By Max Filby

A majority of nursing homes are operating at a loss, due in part to the coronavirus, a new national survey found. Some fear they won’t be able to continue operating for another year unless more stimulus money is provided.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, nursing homes face financial fights on two fronts with fewer clients and more spending needed to combat the virus.

Fewer clients mean nursing homes have less money to begin with, and the pandemic is proving to be a costly burden as facilities are forced to buy more protective gear and implement broad testing strategies, said Patrick Schwartz, a spokesman for LeadingAge Ohio, a nonprofit group that advocates for long-term care facilities and hospices.

About 55% of nursing homes nationally are operating at a loss, due in part to the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the American Health Care Association. About 89% of all nursing homes are turning a profit of just 3% or less.

“Providers are definitely between a rock and a hard place right now,” Schwartz said. “We know that long after everything opens back up that this will still be something long-term care providers will have to deal with. ... It’s a funding issue.”

The pandemic was just the latest financial disruption for nursing homes, which were struggling long before the virus hit, according to the AHCA.

More than 60% of all nursing home residents rely on Medicaid to cover their care. But Medicaid reimburses facilities for only about 70% to 80% of costs, leaving them to figure out how to cover the rest, according to the AHCA.

That Medicaid funding gap has been further compounded by COVID-19 in various ways.

The cost of a single disposable gown went from about 25 cents January to $7 in August after the pandemic was in full swing, Schwartz said. That means the price of a single gown increased by 28 times over the span of eight months.

Those higher costs, coupled with concerns about how easily the virus spreads in congregate living settings, have created the perfect COVID-19 storm, Schwartz said.

The median age of Ohioans killed by COVID-19 is 80, according to the Ohio Department of Health. About 55% of the state’s 4,226 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities as of Thursday, state data shows.

At the start of the pandemic, Gov. Mike DeWine and then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton imposed strict rules on long-term care facilities. For months, for example, families were not allowed to visit loved ones who were living in facilities.

Some people are putting off finding the right nursing home or community for their family member because they fear another lockdown could be imposed and would prevent them from visiting, said Ken Daily, executive director of Greenville Health and Rehabilitation Center in Darke County.

The multitude of concerns is why the Greenville center saw its resident population drop by 40%.

The center had 82 residents in March. Following the death of 17 residents, that number declined to a low point of about 49 and has since climbed back to 62, Daily said.

“It’s kind of the worst-case scenario,” Daily said. “It has been tough. We have extraordinary costs, there’s just all the PPE cost and testing cost.”

Daily said he is required to have residents and staff tested twice a week. That can cost the nursing home anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 each time, he said.

Willow Brook Christian Communities, which runs facilities for assisted living, rehabilitation, memory care and more in Columbus, Worthington and Delaware, also has felt the pinch.

Willow Brook estimates it’s lost close to $1.5 million due to COVID-19, while the Greenville center is still seeing a profit of less than 1%.

Like the Greenville center, the loss is partially due to a decrease in residents, with Willow Brook estimating it lost about 50 clients since the pandemic began and is at 425. Willow Brook has also purchased an additional $150,000 in protective gear, said Tom Poulson, chief financial officer at Willow Brook.

Despite the loss, Willow Brook hasn’t had to lay off any employees or pause any capital projects yet. Stimulus money paid out by Ohio and the federal government has helped keep the organization afloat.

About 96% of nursing homes nationwide have received some government funding to help address virus-related costs, the AHCA reports. Willow Brook received $744,000 in stimulus funding, while Daily estimates his facility has received about $300,000 in state and federal dollars.

“We can tolerate this for a time period, but tougher decisions will come if there isn’t further government stimulus,” Poulson said. “It definitely did not cover all of those revenue losses.”

Willow Brook isn’t the only long-term care provider that may need more stimulus funding.

If the pandemic continues well into next year as experts believe, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities could all find themselves in a more difficult financial situation, said Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, a trade-industry group. Van Runkle and others said they’re hopeful Congress will come to an agreement on another stimulus package, though specific legislation still remains in limbo.

Most nursing home and assisted-living providers appear to agree.

About 40% of those surveyed by the AHCA won’t be able to sustain their operations for another six months, and 72% said they won’t be able to keep up with COVID-19 for another year.

“They’re very happy and grateful to receive some of this funding,” Van Runkle said. “The big concern is really what happens in 2021 if we’re not out of this. ... Your costs are rising and your revenue is going down and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Full Article & Source:

Thursday, September 17, 2020

CMS Issues New Guidance, Opening Up Nursing Home Visitation

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has issued new guidance for visitation in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A memo sent [9/17/20] to state survey directors makes clear that visitations can be made for more than pure end-of-life reasons, and include physical touching in certain instances. In addition, communal dining and activities may take place as long as six-foot distancing and other precautions are observed.

“Outdoor visits are encouraged. Indoor visitation is allowed if there’s no new cases in the previous two weeks and if certain core principals — like screening, resident and staff testing, hygiene, social distancing and cleansing — are put into effect,” Pence said at the discussion attended by numerous members of the Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes. In attendance were key nursing home association members and officials.

Dementia patient, 86, dies after being found in freezer at Trotwood nursing home

An 86-year-old dementia patient died after being found in a freezer two hours after she was reported missing from a Trotwood nursing home.

Staff at Maria Joseph Nursing & Rehabilitation Center reported Sofiya Perel, 86, was missing from a secure unit at 1:38 a.m. Tuesday. Staff had been searching for Perel for two hours, according to dispatch logs.

“The alarm didn’t go off," a nurse told 911 dispatchers. “We don’t know how she got out.”

Police searched the area and called in a helicopter to assist in looking for Perel. At 4 a.m., she was found in a freezer, according to records.

The cause and manner of her death have not been determined, according to Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger.

Full Article & Source:

Families From Loved Ones in Nursing Homes

Texans in nursing homes banned from being with loved ones by Texas’ governor have hope in new lawsuit.

By Robert Montoya

Grassroots Texans represented by a North Texas law firm filed a lawsuit this week against Gov. Greg Abbott for banning those in nursing homes from being with their loved ones. These bans in his coronavirus-related mandates have caused nursing home residents and their loved ones pain and anguish.

On March 9 of this year, in response to the coronavirus, Abbott issued a mandate banning Texans in nursing homes from being with their loved ones. The reason given was to protect those in nursing homes from the virus. In the case of Marcy Renneberg’s father, he caught the virus anyway and later died from a heart attack. Marcy now worries about her mother, who remains in the nursing home and isn’t eating well.

Abbott’s ban also isolated Carol Waggoner from her 80-year-old husband, who is in a nursing home. Neither are in the best of health, and Carol wants to be with her husband again before either of them dies.

There are other similar stories of pain caused by nursing home mandates.

On September 10, Attorney Warren Norred, of Norred Law Firm in Arlington, announced he had filed a lawsuit against Gov. Abbott for the ban. Renneberg is one of the plaintiffs listed.

“This suit comes after literally losing potential plaintiffs through death resulting from the separation of nursing home residents from the people who were caring for them,” Norred wrote. “It would be one thing if the rules were even effective, but our clients have watched delivery drivers have their temperature checked and then waltz into nursing homes and drop off vending supplies.”

Concerned Texans are encouraged to contact their state representative, state senator, and Gov. Greg Abbott.

If you or anyone you know has had a similar experience from government mandates in response to the coronavirus, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us at 

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Families From Loved Ones in Nursing Homes

Georgia man fears he won’t get proper goodbye with family due to hospital’s no visitor policy

Click to Watch Video
By: Michael Seiden
Can you imagine not being able to give a sick parent or a close friend one final hug before they pass away?

Or what if you were standing just feet away from a relative, but the only way to comfort them was on Facetime or Zoom?

Unfortunately, this has become the new reality for Georgians as hospitals continue to ban visitors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But as Channel 2′s Michael Seiden reports, many people are now calling on hospitals to change their policies and come up with a plan.

“I did a lot of good things in life, and it’s just hard to go the way I’m going,” patient Mark Robinson said.

Across the state, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing hospital patients like Robinson to deal with the unthinkable.

The 48-year-old husband and father of four doesn’t have the virus, but he’s battling congestive heart failure. He fears he may die alone in the hospital without his wife there to comfort him.

“I married her at 16 years old. Needed a permission slip to marry and we’ve been married for 32 years faithfully all the way through," Robinson said. “It’s so unfair that I’m sitting, going like I’m going, and I can’t see my wife at the last moment.”

Right now, Robinson’s only hope of survival lies in a major operation. Doctors are trying to implant a heart pump, but the procedure is too dangerous.

“We don’t know right this second what’s going to happen, but as of right now, I will not survive the surgery," he told Seiden.

Robinson has spent the last three weeks in the intensive care unit at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. He said it’s hard to stay positive when you don’t have family by your side.

“Depression was not something I was used to and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it just hit me hard.”

Hospitals in metro Atlanta have enforced a no visitor policy as part of their safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Seiden reached out to Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital and received the following statement:

“Emory Healthcare continues to remain vigilant during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safest care environment possible for our patients, staff and physicians. As a result, Emory Healthcare has a no visitor policy, with few exceptions, in place at its hospitals and clinics. We know these visitation restrictions are challenging and difficult for families, patients and their care teams. To better support, we have instituted virtual visits, supported by donated tablets, to help patients and their loved ones to connect. Because of federal privacy laws, we cannot comment on specific patient cases.”

Hospitals that have no visitor policies do have some exceptions that include a mother giving birth and for patients under the age of 18.

Robinson’s wife Cheryl said she is trying to remain positive. But the thought of not being able to share one more hug, one more kiss, one more laugh with her soulmate of 32 years is gut-wrenching.

“Emotionally it is draining me to the point I can’t be there for him when he’s upset and crying," she said. “He’s scared. He’s scared all the time . It’s the worst feeling.”

Mark and Cheryl Robinson are hoping hospital officials will hear their pleas before it’s too late.

“Not to be able to give her a hug and a kiss if anything happens,” Mark said.

“What would they do if it was their spouse? How would they feel if they weren’t allowed to see their spouse on their possible last day? You have to have compassion for people and I know there’s exceptions. I know they can make exceptions,” Cheryl said.

 Full Article & Source:

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

‘We Want to See Our Mom Before She Dies’ – California Probate Court and Abusive Conservatorship System Denies Children of 93 Year-Old Visitation

No one should have to live intentionally kept apart from their loved ones.

Moreover, no sick or defenseless elderly parent who has a loving family should have to spend their final years isolated from them, surrounded only by careless and even hostile strangers whose only interest seems to be exploiting the elderly.

That is why Bertha Bernal’s case matters to all of us.

Bertha Bernal is 93 years old and not permitted to see her children – by strangers.

“It’s criminal. It hurts me to see that they do it to other families, too,” Bertha’s daughter Sandra Cobianchi, known in the family as Sandi, says in a trembling voice. “These guardians and conservators are accountable to no one.”

All it took was one disagreeing family member, her son Michael, to insist on taking the matter to court, and the situation turned into a living nightmare for Bertha and her family. A tale of state overreach and lawlessness, of US citizens lost in the inescapable maze of California Probate Courts, and suffering, under the deeply flawed Conservatorship System.

LIKE A PLAGUE ON THE ELDERLY – PROBATE COURT DRAINS MONEY FROM VULNERABLE“, blasted the Orange County Register in its cover, in 2018. It was not, as we will see, a sensationalist claim, but rather a verifiable tragedy.

The Conservatorship System is “a flawed nationwide system,” Tony Saavedra wrote for the Register, “in which strangers appointed by the court decide where people live, how their money is spent and even who they can see.”

“How can legal professionals have such power over the life of a noncriminal, to the point that even family has no voice?”

Daughter Sandi, who spoke exclusively to the Frank Report, has no doubt about what is taking place all across the US: “That’s elderly abuse, to me.”

A little over a dozen years ago, Bertha Bernal, then in her early eighties, was happily living on her own. A widow of a WW2 and Korean War veteran, Jack Lara Bernal, Bertha, now 93, has four children: two daughters, Cathleen and Sandra, and two sons, Anthony and Michael.

Family members who were close to her began detecting signs indicative of dementia. The situation progressed until, in 2008, Bertha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

When the problem was first detected, it was discussed in the family, and all siblings agreed that she needed daily assistance with tasks such as food or taking her medicine on time – we all know how dealing with many daily prescription pills can be confusing to anyone, let alone an elderly lady with dementia.

Her daughter, who was living in the San Francisco Bay area, had to move in, to help Bertha sell her house to make a cash reserve and face her new situation. The family subsequently found an elderly home for Bertha to live in.

One of her sons, Michael Bernal, who is the Trustee, resented that decisions had been taken without his consent, arguments over money followed, and the situation between the siblings escalated to the point of a bitter family dispute.

With trustee Michael on one side, and all the other siblings and most family members on the other, their fight landed on Probate Court.

And that’s when the unspeakable nightmare begins for Bertha and her family.

“It’s called probate court, and — used properly — it can be a way to protect the elderly and disabled from physical and financial bullying by family and friends.” But, Tony Saavedra found, probate court “also can open the door for high-priced professionals to swallow a client’s life savings and the family’s future inheritance.”

Gianna Gruenwald, was a court-ordered guardian
In Orange County probate court, a Guardian Ad Litem was appointed to Bertha Bernal: a woman by the name of Gianna Gruenwald. With Bertha incapacitated by dementia and the family at odds, the Guardian Ad Litem was supposed to advocate for Bertha’s best interests.

According to daughter Sandi, that is NOT how it worked. “She spent approximately an hour a year with Mom, but her opinion was treated as gospel by the court, and the judge looked up to her for answers, even though she was not informed of day-to-day realities.”

The 2018 investigation by the Southern California News Group on the probate court situation is faithfully reproduced here by the circumstances of Bertha’s case.

“The family is fighting,” Gianna repeatedly told the court. According to the siblings, she continuously misrepresented the nature of the family conflict.

Indeed, critics in California have been vocal about how “Guardians and Conservators often play one side of the family against the other”.

Add caption
“It’s a sticky situation that can become a strain on the limited resources of the client, who is billed for the salaries and legal fees of the professionals involved in probate cases.”

Cristina Erickson-Taube, a fiduciary advisor advised that Bertha must have outside, paid caregivers.

In Bertha’s case, the playbook is in full display: Gianna brought along with her fiduciary advisor Cristina Erickson-Taube who, at times, insisted on having paid external caregiver services, even though Bertha already had caregivers in the house she was living in.

A colossal waste of money.

The pattern of padding the bills and squandering the money away seems apparent.

When Bertha had an eye infection, Sandi had to fight hard and long with the guardian to take her Mom to a doctor. The infection had by then spread to both eyes.

Just imagine that a guardian could have the power to even deny medical care to an elderly lady, and overturn family decisions in this field.

“The conservators, guardians, fiduciaries, their attorneys and judges become almost cliquish in running people’s lives,” found Saavedra.

They cover each other’s backs, and get away with grave irregularities, even – it would seem – elderly abuse.

Eventually Gianna Gruenwald was taken out of the case.

The judge subsequently appoints the trustee son, Michael, as Conservator for Bertha Bernal. The rival siblings, at first, did not object. They must have felt, nothing could be worse than the guardian.
They were wrong.

According to Sandi, Michael proceeded to constitute three lawyers with Bertha’s money to fight his siblings. He moved her from the good home she was (and where she was reportedly thriving) to an atria home in Irvine, California.

Sudden moves, we all know, are cruel to people with dementia.

Sandi had to fight even to get vitamin supplements for her Mom’s Alzheimer’s. Then it was “no overnight stay” for her granddaughter. Then it was “no meals for visitors.” Hygiene complaints in the house were also an issue.

Eventually Bertha was forced to change yet again to another atria home, because, as they said Bertha “would try to use her walker down the stairs.”

With Michael as conservator, while the rest of the family felt that “he never seemed to be concerned about her best interests” and the problems were many, at least there was a constant and normal visitation schedule.

While that seemed like an inalienable right, soon, that would also be at risk.

When Bertha’s money ran out, Michael finally resigned as Conservator.

Suzette Smith
Court then goes on to appoint Suzette Smith – and the family approves, because she promises to investigate Michael’s financial misdeeds, and also the overcharging and false billing by Cristina Erickson.


Bertha’s conservator, Suzette Smith manages 60 families. She shows the exact care for each one that this sheer number would suggest. She seems to be dealing in volume, trying to maximize her upside.

Things instantly became more and more restrictive. More and more ‘rules’, and even going to the point of hanging up the phone on family members, as she admitted in court.

The investigation Suzette promised was just for show. They didn’t even bother to relay the non-findings to the family.

Maila Soliven a caregiver who didn’t seem to care.
Even more tragic, Suzette chose a problematic caregiver, Maila Soliven. She is “an opinionated, aggressive woman” who loves her Pradas, and displayed an incredible contempt towards the elderly she should be caring for.

The Conservator took Bertha out of her atria home and installed her in a Board and Care run by Maila, subjecting the elderly lady with dementia to yet another change.

Bertha pleaded for Sandi to stay with her during the move: “I want my daughter to go with me.” Caregiver Maila ignored her, and stuck a finger in Sandi’s face, saying: “You’re staying here. I’m taking your Mom.”

Whenever Sandi reacted to defend her mother, they used it against her in court.

In California and all-around America, conservators have a well-earned bad reputation. Total unaccountability begets abuse and criminal behavior.

At Maila’s “Home,” where Bertha is living, her children can never arrive unannounced, because apparently the caregiver needs to ‘stage’ the conditions that she is kept in before a family member can see her.

Once, as Sandi arrived, the worker in the home frantically called Maila, who ordered: “Don’t let her in until I get there.”

But Bertha saw her daughter across the screen-door.

“Why don’t you let my daughter in?” she cried.


Sandi left the scene to avoid a confrontation. But she never leaves a fight.

People around her urge her to just give up. “Stop. Walk away. You did what you can.”

But can you really give up on your own mother? WHO CAN ASK THAT OF THEIR FELLOW HUMAN BEING?

The situation worsened even more with the advent of the pandemic, when the very restrictive visitation, reduced to a very limited amount of phone calls.

At Maila’s place, the elderly are permitted to talk to their family members “only once a week for a few minutes.”


Consequently, Bertha’s condition is “deteriorating rather rapidly”.

“When am I going see you? I miss you. I love you.” From the depths of Alzheimer’s, Bertha can still find the strength to call for help. But for how long?

It breaks our hearts. It should break yours, too.

Bertha Bernal needs justice – NOW.

[Frank Report reached out to the conservator Suzette Smith and the caregiver Maila Soliven, Neither has responded to our request for comment.]

Stay tuned for part 2.

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‘We Want to See Our Mom Before She Dies’ – California Probate Court and Abusive Conservatorship System Denies Children of 93 Year-Old Visitation

Law enforcement, social service agencies align to keep elderly safe

By Steven Spearie

In early 2013, Vaughn Henry, a former Springfield financial advisor, took more than $150,000 from a 99-year-old Jerome woman with promises to invest it.

But Henry didn’t follow through on his promise of investing the woman’s money in a slaughterhouse in the Ivory Coast. Instead, Henry transferred the funds to his own accounts in late 2013 and early 2014 and spent the money on personal expenses.

Facing charges of theft exceeding $100,000 and financial exploitation of the elderly, Henry was found guilty and in April 2019 was sentenced to 7 1/2 years behind bars.

Of the 507 intakes Senior Services of Central Illinois/ Adult Protective Services reported for fiscal year 2020, over half of them dealt with financial exploitation of elderly persons.

The newly-formed Sangamon County Senior Support Alliance is an elder abuse prevention that solidifies local law enforcement’s ties with social service agencies, like Senior Services.

“One of the things we were really looking at is how can we better partner?” said Carol Harms, executive director of Senior Services, which serves Logan, Menard and Mason counties, in addition to Sangamon County. “How can we make our community partnerships stronger to build this relationship so we ensure the safety of the seniors?”

The public will get a close-up look at the alliance during a Facebook Live event at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The session will feature Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright; Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell; Sangamon County Department of Public Health director Gail O’Neill; Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow; Area Agency on Aging for Lincolnland volunteer coordinator Jennifer Hopper and Harms.

In addition to financial exploitation, Adult Protective Services (APS) investigates reports of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of persons over 60 in their homes. It also investigates reports for persons 18 to 59 years of age with a documented disability.

Calls come into a hotline, said Carolyn Yuroff, APS department supervisor, from friends, neighbors and family members of elderly persons, and other agencies and medical offices.

Not every case results in APS taking a police report or going to the state’s attorney’s office, Yuroff said. The agency could intervene in some domestic situations by talking to family members or powers of attorney.

“We are a client-driven program,” Yuroff said. “If our clients have competency and the ability to make their own decisions, then we go along with what they say. We’re the advocates of support for them.”

For the fiscal year ending June 30, APS did 183 reports on emotional abuse of seniors in Sangamon County. The reports ranged from seniors being intimidated verbally or a a person talking about them as a burden, Yuroff said.

There were 104 reports of passive neglect for the same period. Yuroff said passive neglect could have meant a caregiver was not bathing the elderly properly, was not taking them to doctors appointments or not keeping the home up.

APS had 45 reports from Logan County last fiscal year, 27 from Mason County and 20 from Menard County. Twenty-two additional cases were transferred to APS because individuals moved into the four-region area.

Financial exploitation has been the most reported allegation over the last three years, Yuroff said. That could include the theft of property or someone using senior’s debit or credit card to make personal purchases. It could also be the result of questionable changes to a person’s will or questionable asset or property transfers.

“Sometimes it’s cut-and-dried because money can be tracked through bank accounts or ATM withdrawals,” Yuroff added. “With financial exploitation, there’s so many people who could come in and fly under the radar, all kinds of different ways people could access that money. In that capacity, it doesn’t surprise me much that financial exploitation is the number one issue.

“People are crafty in getting access to money. However, I think there’s a lot that still goes undocumented for financial exploitation. There are a lot of cases we don’t know about that are huge.”

For a number of reasons, Wright said, elderly individuals may not always be able to protect themselves from victimization.

“Older members of our community too often become targets for those who would take advantage of the vulnerable,” Wright said. “This multi-disciplinary initiative will help us prevent elder abuse and coordinate resources to support early reporting, investigation and prosecution.”

The alliance is based upon the “Triad” concept which began in 1988 when the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriff’s Association convened resources.

Closer to home, Wright said Madison County has had a “Triad” model in place for several years with nearly 30 stakeholder service providers.

To view the event, go to:

To report suspected abuse, exploitation or neglect of an older person, call the statewide, 24-hour Adult Protective Services hotline at 1-866-800-1409.

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Law enforcement, social service agencies align to keep elderly safe

Aging family members: Mental competency and the courts

Cognitive impairment can have a significant impact on one’s life and the lives of family members. So, it’s essential to plan for the possibility and assure appropriate documents are in place. (iStockphoto)
By Teresa J Rhyne

Losing mental competency is something everyone worries about as they age. It’s also something most children worry about on behalf of their parents.

Cognitive impairment can have a significant impact on one’s life and the lives of family members. So, it’s essential to plan for the possibility and assure appropriate documents are in place. But it’s also important to know when a power of attorney or change in trustee may be activated as a result of a person’s diminished mental capacity and what that does and doesn’t mean.

The process isn’t as straightforward as many think.

The presumption of capacity

The California Probate Code provides a presumption that all persons have the capacity to make decisions and to be responsible for their acts or decisions. The law specifically provides that a person who has a mental or physical disorder may still be capable of contracting, conveying, marrying, making medical decisions, executing wills or trusts and performing other actions.

In fact, the American Bar Association has a rule requiring lawyers to presume a client’s capacity and maintain a normal client/lawyer relationship (including confidentiality) even when a client may exhibit signs of cognitive impairment.
Like lawyers, doctors are to presume capacity and work with their patients to allow them to make their own decisions for as long as possible. A patient who cannot make major or more complex decisions may still be able to make smaller, simpler decisions.

Determining incapacity

A physician’s diagnosis of dementia or any other mental impairment is not a determination of mental incompetence.

Likewise, a doctor signing a statement that a patient lacks the ability to make their own financial decisions or handle their own affairs is not a determination of legal incapacity — only a judicial order can do that.

Instead, the doctor’s written statement can be used to activate a power of attorney and/or allow a successor trustee to take over handling the trust matters, but there are limits on those documents.

Power of attorney

All persons, regardless of age, should have a power of attorney in place. A power of attorney designates an agent to act on your behalf should you become unable to handle your own affairs.

Generally, the power of attorney is activated either voluntarily (i.e., you sign agreeing to allow someone else to act on your behalf) or when two physicians sign off that a patient can no longer act on their own behalf.

Likewise, a living trust should provide how and when a new trustee takes over, in the event the trustmaker is unable to act. The trust should provide how that inability is determined — one or two physicians signing a statement, or perhaps a majority of a named committee of people.

A power of attorney and/or appointment as successor trustee of a parent’s trust works in many situations and might be all that is needed, provided family members are in agreement (i.e., siblings aren’t arguing over matters concerning the parent and making conflicting decisions).

A power of attorney is not, however, a determination of legal incompetence, and it does not take away any rights of the principal. Thus, you may have a valid power of attorney and appointment as a successor or co-trustee to act on behalf of your parent diagnosed with dementia, but that does not mean your parent cannot still sign checks, enter into contracts and engage in other transactions.

It is not uncommon for a parent to be led to this behavior at the urging of the child who does not have power of attorney, in an effort to curry favor or gain control. To prevent that, you may need to file for a conservatorship — a judicial determination that the person no longer has legal competency and an order stating who specifically may now act on that person’s behalf.


When a conservatorship is ordered by a court, the conservatee loses some rights, including the right to enter into contracts on their own behalf.

In a conservatorship, a person, who may or may not be the person named in the power of attorney, is appointed conservator of the incapacitated client’s person and estate and is the only person who can act on the conservatee’s behalf. The determination will be made by a judge who will also appoint an attorney to act on behalf of the incapacitated adult to determine their desires and best interests.

However, California law provides that an attorney who moves for conservatorship over their client is violating attorney-client privilege. Thus, the attorney who drafted mom or dad’s power of attorney or trust, cannot be the attorney who assists you in getting a conservatorship over your parent. That attorney’s job is to protect the parent/client and act solely in their interest.

Stages of incapacity

When mom or dad start forgetting your name, misplacing keys, repeating things they just told you, is it time to activate the power of attorney? How about when they go for a walk and get lost? Forget to pay their bills? Start handing out money to any scammer that calls? Are diagnosed with a type of dementia?

The answer is “it depends.”

Generally, you’ll want to observe the parent much more carefully, with regular in-person visits (wear a mask!). Get a doctor’s opinion. Frequent communication with the parent and all siblings is desirable, so everyone knows what’s going on and can agree on a plan. Arguments and disagreements over who acts when will only add to the confusion and stress the parent may be feeling.

If the parent will voluntarily agree to activate a power of attorney or appoint a child as co-trustee (or sole trustee) of a trust so that a child can at least check bank account balances, ask questions at financial institutions, and obtain and review important documents, that’s a good first step. If they won’t voluntarily turn over any control, you will likely need a doctor’s opinion, and if problems still persist, a conservatorship may be needed.

The farther ahead you plan, the more options you will have available.

Full Article & Source:
Aging family members: Mental competency and the courts

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

'I Care a Lot': Film Review | TIFF 2020

by David Rooney

Courtesy of TIFF
From left: Eiza González, Dianne Wiest and Rosamund Pike in 'I Care a Lot'
Rosamund Pike stars as a legal conservator running a lucrative guardianship grift who strikes trouble when she messes with a gangster played by Peter Dinklage in this acidic thriller.

Seldom has a film's title been more thoroughly doused in darkest irony than J. Blakeson's breathtakingly vicious thriller I Care a Lot. In a role that makes riveting use of her chilly poise, Rosamund Pike brings crisp efficiency and dead-eyed amorality to a legal conservator scamming defenseless seniors out of their assets as she and her co-conspirators take control of their lives, shutting out pesky family members whenever necessary. At a time when governments in many countries seem to be abandoning traditional watchdog responsibilities and turning a blind eye to corporate malfeasance, the phrase "ward of the state" here takes on an alarming new meaning.

Stories of elder abuse and companies exploiting the weaknesses of people whose failing physical or mental faculties leave them unable to take care of themselves in the eyes of the courts are an ugly fact of contemporary reality. So your enjoyment of this slick, well-crafted crime caper might depend on your ability to separate thoughts of your own aging parents or grandparents from the scenario.

The movie is either delectably wicked or dyspeptically sour — you decide. I went back and forth while watching, though there was never a moment when I wasn't glued, even if some of the plotting in the script by Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The 5th Wave) becomes a stretch as Pike's character, Marla Grayson, shifts from fooling the gullible courts into outmaneuvering a ruthless crime boss and his deadly flunkies. Some audiences may also find it off-putting that the characters across the board are pretty much irredeemable, or in the case of the family court judge Marla effortlessly dupes, stupid.

Marla might be the perfect villainous antihero for the age of Trump, who of course has made no secret of his contempt for "losers." Over sunny slo-mo opening footage of smiling elder-care workers distributing medication to gaga patients, Marla informs us there's no such thing as good people. "Playing fair is a joke invented by the rich to keep the rest of us poor." Revealing that she has been poor and it doesn't agree with her, Marla explains that there are two types of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs. "My name is Marla Grayson and I am no lamb. I am a fucking lioness."

We first glimpse her from behind in the courtroom of Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), her silvery-blond bob so sharp it looks like it could draw blood. But Marla can turn on the guardian-angel sincerity as required. She doubles down on her position as Feldstrom (Macon Blair), the adult son of one of her wards, fights a non-visitation order preventing him from seeing his mother, whose home and assets have been auctioned off by Marla, ostensibly to fund the old woman's care.

When Feldstrom confronts her outside the court, smugly preparing to take off with her business and romantic partner Fran (Eiza González), Marla reveals her glacial true self. It's also here that the script introduces its blunt feminist subtext that men don't have exclusive domain over playing dirty, yet nothing stings them worse than being beaten by a woman.

Marla's company, Grayson Guardianship, is a major enterprise with stylish offices and a wall of headshots in the executive suite showing the status of her many wards and their cash yield. The news that one of them has died unexpectedly brings annoyance, since Marla expected to keep bilking him for at least another six years: "Now I have to cash him out, turn over everything to his inheritors. What a fucking waste." But it also creates opportunity, with the sudden vacancy of a plum room at a pricey facility whose sleazy administrator, Sam Rice (Damian Young), is in on the scam.

Dr. Karen Amos (Alicia Witt) is also part of the operation, with her hand out for a cut; she steers fresh cash cows in Marla's direction, fudging their medical assessments as necessary. In Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a well-heeled woman who downsized for retirement and is sitting on a fortune, Karen believes she has found a "cherry," a patient with no known family and vast assets to be tapped, including a large house in an upscale neighborhood. Gumshoe Fran's investigation indicates that Jennifer fits the mold.

Wiest is in fine form as a still very much competent woman, who goes from confusion to anger to shell-shocked compliance when faced with Marla's court order and cops standing by in case she resists as they relocate her from her home without warning.

The heartlessness of this scene alone will be distressing for many audiences, even more so when Jennifer is checked into the facility run by Sam, and swiftly relieved of her cell phone. (A 2017 New Yorker article illustrated the horrifying truth and hazy legal oversight of guardianship fraud, with people like Marla gaming the system of state parens patriae laws to drain the resources of the 1.5 million elderly Americans living under professional care.)

The payday looks suddenly more interesting when Marla discovers that Jennifer's safe deposit box contains a pouch of chunky diamonds not listed on the insurance form. But it's also revealed that Jennifer has ties to Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful career criminal with a taste for French patisserie. Turns out that the "cherry" was actually a "spider's web," observes Fran, the only character with a glimmer of morality.

After first sending his legal shark, Dean Ericson (Chris Messina, reliably savory), to try bribes and death threats, then assigning his goon Alexi (a droll Nicholas Logan) to break Jennifer out of the home where she is under lockdown with no visitors, Roman learns that Marla is not easily intimidated. She retaliates by having Jennifer's meds, diet, sleep and exercise routines modified in punishing ways. "I'm the worst mistake you'll ever make," Jennifer tells Marla, a malicious hint of a smile peeking through her drugged-up fog.

The treacherous face-off between combatants ostensibly on opposite sides of the law wades into dark comedy territory, especially when Marla's indignation is spiked by Roman resorting to thuggery rather than beating her fair and square in the courts. The inference that her entire scheme is more or less legal makes the whole scenario even queasier. "To make it in this country you need to be brave … and stupid and ruthless and focused," says Marla while tied to a chair at Roman's mercy. "Playing fair, being scared, that gets you nowhere. That gets you beat."

The twisty acceleration of reciprocal payback moves is gruesome fun, if not always entirely plausible. But Blakeson and editor Mark Eckersley keep the pace zippy and the plotting taut, despite its density of incident. The sinister techno score by Marc Canham also helps maintain the momentum, while DP Doug Emmett (Sorry to Bother You) provides a sleek visual canvas.

LGBTQ audiences might question what the story gains by making Marla a lesbian, other than a faint whiff of old-school homophobia by adding an extra layer of otherness to a character unencumbered by ethics or compassion. Blakeson would likely argue that it's when Roman sends his men after Fran that Marla strikes back with renewed determination.

And in a movie that makes a big point of women being just as cold-blooded as men, it seems ungenerous not to give Wiest's grossly mistreated Jennifer the chance to exact her own revenge, especially after establishing that she's no sweet old lady. Instead, she's shuffled quietly off to the sidelines as the Marla-Roman smackdown takes a more cynical turn, suggesting the endless scope for legitimized corporate skullduggery in 21st century America.

Whether you find this entertaining or repugnant will depend on your stomach for a despicable reality. But the movie delivers unquestionable pleasures in the pairing of Pike's monstrous manipulator with the always wonderful Dinklage's cool, calm killer, a man too smart not to recognize and respect his adversary's formidable intelligence.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production company: Black Bear Pictures, Crimple Beck
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Nicholas Logan, Damian Young, Alicia Witt
Director-screenwriter: J. Blakeson
Producers: Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler
Executive producers: Andrea Ajemian, Sacha Guttenstein
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Music: Mark Canham
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Sales: CAA, STX International
118 minutes

Full Article & Source:
'I Care a Lot': Film Review | TIFF 2020

Restitution, probation end Morgan financial exploitation case

By Samantha McDaniel-Ogletree

Photo: Journal-Courier
A plea agreement will result in probation and a requirement that two Morgan County women repay nearly $40,000.

Two Jacksonville women have reached a plea deal with the state after they were accused of stealing nearly $40,000 from a woman in their care at the time of the theft.

As a part of their plea, Joyce Gill, 64, and her daughter Jewell Maul, 39, will not be serving time in jail, but will instead be placed on probation and assessed several fines and fees, as well as restitution of $40,000.

The women are accused of making $39,449 in transactions from the bank account of Norma Notson, who was 88 and in their care at the time.

According to probation orders, each woman will be placed on two years of second-chance probation.

Conditions of their probation include submission to random drug testing, 30 hours of community service, no criminal activity, obtain or attempting to obtain employment and several other terms.

Prior to the deal, both women were charged with financial exploitation of an elderly person. As a part of the plea, charges were amended to theft over $10,000 but not exceeding $100,000 after they “exerted unauthorized control over property of Norma Notson, being $39,449.43 of … currency, intending to permanently deprive Norma Notson of said currency’s use.”

In addition to the $40,000 in restitution that was repaid to Notson’s family, they were both assessed an additional $899 in fees, including fees for Crime Stoppers, assessment fees and DNA analysis fund fees.

The plea came after motions to dismiss all charges were denied in February. Attorneys for Maul and Gill argued that the women could be prosecuted because of an oral agreement between a prosecutor, Ed Parkinson, and Gill’s husband, Robert Gill — who is Maul’s father — and his attorney Scott Hanken.

That pact, they contend, was a condition of Robert Gill’s first-degree murder guilty plea in the 2015 shooting death of of Andrew Maul, who was Jewell Maul’s ex-husband.

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Restitution, probation end Morgan financial exploitation case

Academy Awards Make Push For Increased Disability Representation

by Shaun Heasley

by Shaun Heasley | September 10, 2020
Oscar statue in front of Academy Awards sign
The Academy Awards will phase in new inclusion standards in the coming years to promote better representation of people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups in film. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS)
For the first time, movies will have to meet inclusion standards in order to contend for best picture at the Oscars and disability representation is a significant piece of the puzzle.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said this week that eligibility requirements will take effect beginning with the awards given in 2024.

The move is intended to “encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience,” the Academy said.

Under the new requirements, films must meet two out of four standards to be eligible for Hollywood’s top honor. The standards cover a film’s casting, storyline and who’s working behind the camera as well as training opportunities and promotional staff at the company backing the movie.

Including people with cognitive or physical disabilities as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing are among the ways that a film can satisfy the standards. For example, a film could qualify under one standard if its storyline focuses on this group or if actors with such disabilities account for a significant number of secondary or more minor roles.

The new inclusion mandate also covers underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In order to be considered for best picture in 2022 and 2023, films must submit a confidential Academy Inclusion standards form, but they won’t be expected to meet the criteria until 2024. The standards will only apply to the best picture category.

“We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry,” Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in a statement.

Hollywood has long faced criticism for minimal representation of people with disabilities and other minority groups. A report out last year found that only 1.6 percent of all speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2018 had a disability.

Lauren Appelbaum with RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to promote disability inclusion in Hollywood, welcomed the Academy’s initiative.

“We are especially pleased to see people with disabilities included, as too often disability is not included in diversity conversations,” she said.

In particular, Appelbaum indicated that it’s significant that the Academy’s plan encourages people with disabilities to be in roles behind the camera since that will help bring about more authentic stories.

While there is still work to be done, she said, “this is a major first step to bringing about change in an industry that has been resistant to change.”

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Academy Awards Make Push For Increased Disability Representation