Early one August morning,
a young woman in camouflage shorts and a plastic tiara slipped out of a
building in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and hopped into the Dodge Neon
idling outside. She snatched a brief kiss with her childhood sweetheart,
waiting at the wheel in cowboy boots, before he gunned the engine and
set out along the Flaming Gorge canyon. At 7:15 a.m., just across the
border in Utah, Arieana Wynter and Jesse Jones were declared husband and
It was 2,000 miles away, in Florida, that a retired engineer and
former Navy reservist named Doug Keegan donned a crisp suit and said his
vows. His bride wore a white dress dotted with pink flowers. Monica
Steele had transformed Keegan’s life since the pair met the previous
year. After decades as a bachelor, he finally had someone to cook for,
sing to, and teach how to swing a golf club. They had already
honeymooned in Kenya. Now it was time to make it official. “When I said,
‘I’m going to love you forever,’” he later recalled, “that was cemented
into my heart.”
The two couples were worlds apart in age, wealth,
and social background — but their marriages had something in common
that neither could have imagined. Each one would be used to support
arguments that both Wynter and Keegan had mental disabilities so
profound that they were incapable of making decisions about their own
lives and should instead live under the control of virtual strangers.
and Keegan were sucked into America’s sprawling guardianship system,
which was designed as a last-resort protection for people who are
incapacitated by a mental or physical disability. Guardians who carry
out their duties faithfully can provide a lifeline for those in need.
But an ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation has found that the system has grown into a lucrative and poorly regulated industry that has subsumed more than a million adults.
Most of the freedoms articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: They can lose their rights
to vote, marry, start a family, decide where they live, consent to
medical treatment, spend their money, seek employment, or own property.
It is among the most severe measures the courts can impose on a US
Our investigation has revealed how an established network of
guardians, lawyers, and expert witnesses, appearing frequently before
the same judges in local courts across the country, are often paid from
the estate of the person whose freedom is on the line, creating many
possible conflicts of interest. Guardians who work for the state get
paid from government funds, sometimes overseeing hundreds of people at a
time. Other wards are consigned to the care of untrained volunteers or
family members. All scenarios can leave vulnerable people susceptible to
Debra Slater, an attorney who has handled hundreds of
guardianship cases in Florida, said the system is intended to help
people who cannot help themselves and added that the majority of
guardians and lawyers work hard to ensure people in their care live the
fullest lives possible. But abuses can occur, she acknowledged. “For my
whole professional life, I’ve been speaking for those who cannot speak
for themselves,” Slater said. “It is very frustrating to spend your life
trying to do that and then to see others taking advantage and doing
harm to those who need protection most.”
People whom the courts
have declared to be incapacitated rarely lead straightforward lives.
Wynter has serious mental health issues; Keegan has ongoing struggles
with alcoholism. Caring for people under those circumstances is
undoubtedly challenging. Their cases also show how people coping with
complex life challenges can get trapped in guardianships that are
dangerously ill suited to their actual needs and deny them what some
experts call the “dignity of risk”: the right to make their own choices,
both good and bad.
For Keegan and Wynter, guardianship meant
being denied one of the most fundamental rights of all: to be with the
person you love.
Neither had a fairy-tale marriage, but their
cases raise the question of when, if ever, a third party should get to
decide whether two adults deserve to be together.
When Keegan’s relatives found out he had married Steele, a Kenyan
American trainee nurse, they hired lawyers to persuade a judge to put
him under guardianship, blocking her access to money the family expected
to inherit. Lawyers cited alcoholism and his marriage to a woman they
claimed was encouraging him to drink and stealing his money as proof
that he was incapable of making his own decisions. Along the way, they
referred incorrectly to Steele as Keegan’s “mail-order wife” and falsely
alleged he was being “grifted by Nigerian women,” records show. He was
locked in a series of homes for people with severe mental impairment,
while annual accounting records show his guardians spent more than
$400,000 of his savings in fees and other guardianship expenses.
As a teenager living in poverty, Wynter was placed under the
permanent control of a guardian without a court hearing. For months, she
begged to be released from a residential facility where she said she
was “in so much damn pain” and “getting worse every day.” After BuzzFeed
News started looking into her claims, a state agency launched an
investigation and found that staffers there had abused and neglected
The public rarely hears from people under guardianship, but
Keegan and Wynter overcame tremendous odds to speak to BuzzFeed News
about their experiences over more than seven months. They hid their
communications from guardians, concealing burner phones and secretly
logging on to computers. Many of the people who have been instrumental
in keeping them under guardianship said it had provided them the
stability they very much needed. The benefits of guardianship were
obvious, they said, and claims to the contrary were lies or delusions
that should not be trusted. BuzzFeed News reviewed thousands of pages of
documents and conducted dozens of interviews to report on their cases.
Keegan’s and Wynter’s desperate attempts to break free — or even to
seize a simple moment of freedom, such as riding a bike or stealing a
kiss — further cemented their fates. Only one of them would escape.
|Courtesy Doug Keegan
Doug Keegan and Monica Steele
Keegan first heard he was facing guardianship when a stranger
turned up at his door a few weeks after his wedding, in November 2014.
Dressed in a suit, with graying hair and a gravelly voice, he introduced
himself as Calvin Horvath, Keegan’s new court-appointed attorney.
family had filed a petition asking the court to place him under
emergency guardianship, Horvath explained. They said that he had been
incapacitated by years of excessive drinking and his new wife was trying
to steal his money.
Keegan did not deny his troubles with drinking, which included
several hospitalizations for severe alcohol poisoning and a DUI. He’d
had spells in Alcoholics Anonymous but said he found the emphasis on a
higher power off-putting, so he tried to control his drinking on his
own. He was blindsided by his family’s move. “My background is I’m an
alcoholic, but there’s nothing wrong with my mind,” he said. “I’m as
sharp as a tack.”
After working all over the world as an
electrical engineer, Keegan had retired in his early 50s to a
three-bedroom condo in Orlando with soaring cathedral ceilings. He met
his wife when he got lonely and advertised for housemates online. Monica
Steele was an energetic trainee nurse in her late 30s who had emigrated
from Kenya a decade earlier and become a US citizen. Romance quickly
She said she loved it when he sang to her — “Tomorrow” from Annie
was her favorite — and laughed at his jokes until she cried. Keegan
cooked up hamburgers and steaks, and she introduced him to Kenyan
staples like boiled beans with corn and peppers. He still had lapses
into heavy drinking, and the relationship could get stormy, but both
said Steele pushed him to stay healthy. They went to the gym together,
and he taught her to ride a bike. “She was someone to share life with,”
When he told his relatives he had married Steele, he said, he expected some backlash, but not its ferocity.
brother Kevin Keegan turned up at their house, the couple said,
claiming Steele had only married him for money and a green card. Steele,
who already had US citizenship, said she was outraged. “I loved him,”
she said. “He's a very good person and a very, very intelligent man.”
But the rest of the family soon joined in.
“My family didn’t like me marrying a Black girl,” Doug said.
family painted a starkly different picture of the relationship in court
filings and in responses to questions from BuzzFeed News, maintaining
that the marriage was a sham and that they were trying to rescue Keegan
from an exploitative situation. “My brother Douglas is the gift that
just keeps on giving,” Kevin wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Most
of the family took turns trying to help Doug but like many alcoholics he
resists AA and other available help. All the unfortunate things that
have occurred to him are his own making.”
A lawyer representing
Kevin challenged the suggestion that the family had objected to
Steele’s race. “The truth is that Douglas has battled inner demons for
quite some time now,” the lawyer wrote, adding that “Monica didn’t seem
“This is a complicated situation and the family has
stepped in for his interest doing the best they could to help a loved
person,” he added.
Both Keegan and Steele strongly denied that she
had ever taken advantage of him. But Keegan said his relatives had
never shown much interest in him before, and part of him had wanted to
believe they cared. It was true that Steele was less frugal than he was;
she wanted him to buy her a car, he said, and he refused. He figured
those kinds of tensions were normal in any marriage, he said, but he
agreed to his brother’s request to talk to a lawyer about “some sort of
protection, like a postnuptial agreement.”
Emails between the
newlyweds show tensions building up. “I am heartbroken and not sure
what’s going on with the so-called Attorney and your family,” Steele
wrote to Keegan. “I know they’re trying to create enemity [sic]
between us because i am a black woman.” Keegan said he and Steele both
sometimes wondered if it would be easier just to end the marriage, but
they resolved to try to make it work.
The lawyer, Dean Turman, talked to Keegan about drawing up a will
bequeathing his wealth to his siblings, records show. Keegan figured
that was fair for the time being, since his marriage was only a few
weeks old. He also signed a power of attorney — believing, he said, that
it would be used to make an asset protection plan. “I didn’t perceive
the threat,” he told BuzzFeed News, speaking over a burner phone.
records reveal that Turman and Kevin had already met privately to
discuss plans to put Keegan under some kind of guardianship — although
the lawyer noted that he seemed “competent.” Using the power of attorney
Keegan had signed, Turman froze his accounts, telling his bank that he
was “the subject of exploitation by a woman that he has met on the
internet.” Then he filed a guardianship petition on the family’s behalf,
alleging that Steele had used deception to “induce the proposed Ward to
marry her” and had encouraged Keegan to drink so she could steal his
Turman declined to respond to detailed questions from
BuzzFeed News. He said aspects of this story were “absolutely false” but
refused to specify his concerns.
Keegan was outraged and said he
had told his lawyer to fight the incapacity petition all the way.
Instead, records reveal how the actions of Horvath, along with Turman
and other professionals in the case, paved the way for Keegan to lose
his rights. In the first full year of the guardianship alone, they were
collectively paid $140,000 from his accounts. Horvath refused to answer
detailed questions from BuzzFeed News, citing confidentiality.
Keegan’s predicament reflects an all-too-common occurrence across the
US, in which people facing complex personal challenges can become
trapped in a system with no one fighting for their wishes.
Florida’s laws, like those of most other states,
say judges should establish guardianships only when no less restrictive
option is possible. But the hearings in which they are decided can
conclude in just a few minutes without the consideration of any
alternatives. Many states
allow petitions to put people under a guardianship to be heard on an
emergency “ex parte” basis — a measure that can be necessary in extreme
cases where someone may pose an imminent danger to themselves or others.
But that procedure can be misused to strip people of their rights
without any advance warning or any chance to speak up on their own
behalf. And once a person has been declared incapacitated, they generally lose their right to contract, so in most states they can’t appoint their own lawyer to speak up for them, either.
Guardianship statutes often allow
court-appointed lawyers to make their own determinations about what is
in the ward’s best interests, regardless of what the person wants. But
that’s not the case in Florida, where the law
is intended to give people who have been found incapacitated more of a
voice. “If the ward expresses a wish to resist the guardianship, the
attorney should zealously advocate for that,” Anthony Palmieri, the
state’s leading guardianship investigator, told BuzzFeed News. “Does
that always happen? No.”
Keegan said it was his understanding that
he didn’t have to attend his first court date, and that Horvath had
reassured him that a full hearing would follow after a panel of doctors
had examined him. But that first hearing turned out to be critical.
Lawyers for the family told the judge that Keegan was a “chronic
alcoholic” and repeated their claim that Steele was stealing from him.
Keegan had sobered up recently, they said, but that was only because his
relatives had stepped in to help him. Keegan acknowledged in later
filings that his alcoholism was “a health issue” that he was “well
aware of” — but he said it had been used as a “pretext” for his family’s
efforts to take control of his life. “Guardianship is not a substance
abuse program,” he wrote.
On the day of the hearing, Horvath
read out excerpts of an email in which his client said that he would be
happy to accept some help from his relatives but he was not
incapacitated. “I do not believe guardianship is the best answer,”
Keegan had written. “I want to believe it is in my best interest to have
primary control over my financial and personal interests.”
contrast to his client’s stated wishes, Horvath told the court it would
be “appropriate” to appoint Keegan's stepfather as his emergency
The judge agreed to place Keegan under emergency guardianship “because of all these parasites gnawing at the door.”
when Keegan found out that his own lawyer had agreed to the
arrangement, he said his wishes had been deliberately “misrepresented”
in “a mockery of due process, transparency, and rule of law.”
But that came too late. Addressing Keegan’s stepfather, the judge said, “You will possess all of his rights at this point.” (Click to continue reading)