Saturday, August 5, 2023

61-year-old Michigan woman charged for stealing over $100K from vulnerable adult

By Sara Powers

- A 61-year-old Michigan woman has been arraigned on charges in connection to stealing over $100,000 from a vulnerable family member, officials said.

Laurie Laskovy of Decatur was arraigned on one count of embezzlement from a vulnerable adult, which carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison and a fine of $50,000 or triple the value of the amount embezzled, whichever one is greater. 

According to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, Laskovy started serving as co-guardian and sole conservator for a family member in 2012. This family member began living in a residential care facility in 2014. 

During this time, Laskovy had complete control of her family member's finances, which included a bank account, until she was removed from her role as sole conservator in 2022. 

Officials say it is alleged she started to steal money from her family member in 2017 by using their bank account to obtain cash and to pay bills. The funds stolen during this scheme total over $100,000. 

Laskovy was arraigned on Friday, July 28, and was given a $20,000 personal recognizance bond. Her pre-exam conference is scheduled for Aug. 10, and her preliminary examination is scheduled for Aug. 17. 

"Integrity in court-appointed guardians and conservators is paramount to safeguarding the assets and well-being of our most vulnerable residents," said Nessel. "My department will hold accountable those who betray the trust of the court and vulnerable adults in our state."

Full Article & Source:
61-year-old Michigan woman charged for stealing over $100K from vulnerable adult

Property Manager for Senior Residential Buildings Pleads Guilty to Financial Exploitation of Two Elderly District Residents

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Columbia

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Property Manager for Senior Residential Buildings Pleads Guilty to Financial Exploitation of Two Elderly District Residents

            WASHINGTON – Nicole Freeman Smith, 51, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, pleaded guilty today in Superior Court to one felony count and one misdemeanor count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult or elderly person (FEVA) for stealing more than $133,000 from two elderly District residents suffering from cognitive impairment. The plea was announced by U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves, D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb, and Special Agent in Charge Shawn Rice, of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General.

            According to court documents, Smith, who worked as a property manager at several residential buildings for seniors in Washington, D.C., targeted vulnerable building residents to steal thousands of dollars from their accounts and other sources of income after befriending them and gaining their trust. After unduly influencing one victim to provide Smith with access to her financial account information, Smith stole over $94,000 from the victim’s accounts, and attempted to steal $25,000 more. Smith used the stolen funds to pay for personal expenses, including paying off credit card and utility bills, back taxes, and multiple auto loans. Smith further stole more than $38,000 from a second victim, depositing two of the victim’s personal injury settlement checks in Smith’s bank account and keeping the money for herself.

            The Honorable Lynn Leibovitz accepted Smith’s guilty plea and scheduled sentencing for September 29, 2023. As part of her plea, Smith agreed to pay restitution to the victims and will be prohibited from working or volunteering with elderly or vulnerable adults. 

            This prosecution is part of the Office’s wider efforts to combat crimes against seniors and vulnerable adults. In 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia simultaneously launched initiatives to address the abuse and exploitation of older adults. The Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation Initiative at the U.S. Attorney’s Office expanded its response to criminal and civil violations targeting older adults. The initiative has enabled the U.S. Attorney’s Office to develop and coordinate further its prosecution of these cases and enhance its overall support of older or vulnerable victims. The team consists of experienced prosecutors and victim advocates from across the Office, to include the Superior Court, Criminal, and Civil Divisions, as well as the Victim Witness Assistance Unit. This prosecution is indicative of the continued collaboration between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Attorney General to prosecute cases of this kind.

            In announcing the guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Graves, D.C. Attorney General Schwalb, and Special Agent in Charge Rice commended the work of those who investigated the case from HUD-OIG. They also cited the efforts of Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin D. Bleiberg, and former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Nina Torabzadeh, on detail from the Office of the Attorney General to prosecute financial crimes cases involving elderly victims, who investigated and prosecuted the matter.

Property Manager for Senior Residential Buildings Pleads Guilty to Financial Exploitation of Two Elderly District Residents

Exposure to Certain Fragrances During Sleep Dramatically Boosts Cognitive Function

By Mike McRae

Of all the senses we love to indulge, scent is often neglected – but the right smells could be just what your brain needs to keep it whirring in old age.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine recently uncovered strong evidence that enriching the air with fragrances improves cognitive performance by strengthening a critical connection between neurological areas involving memory and decision-making.

Their experiment, involving 43 men and women aged 60 to 85, suggests cognitive decline and conditions such as dementia might be slowed by simply diffusing a different choice of perfumes through the bedroom before bed each night.

Keeping the old gray matter stimulated as we age is vital to maintaining good cognitive health. That doesn't just mean keeping up with the daily crossword – it means peppering our environment with all kinds of sights and sounds for the brain to chew on.

For other animals, enriching the environment with odors has been shown to stimulate neuroplasticity, especially in tests involving animals with human-like symptoms to neurological disorders.

It's not exactly a stretch to believe humans could also benefit from experiencing a complex 'scent-scape'. Physiologically speaking, our ability to detect smells deteriorates before our cognitive ability begins to decline.

Losing this sense also correlates with a loss in brain cells, hinting at a strong connection between smell and neurological function.

"The olfactory sense has the special privilege of being directly connected to the brain's memory circuits," says neurobiologist Michael Yassa.

"All the other senses are routed first through the thalamus. Everyone has experienced how powerful aromas are in evoking recollections, even from very long ago. However, unlike with vision changes that we treat with glasses and hearing aids for hearing impairment, there has been no intervention for the loss of smell."

To determine whether cognitive decline can be saved with this kind of sensory stimulation, Yassa and his colleagues provided 20 of the study's recruits with an assortment of natural oils containing fragrances of rose, orange, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, and lavender.

Oil added to a heater
Aromatic oils could help work the brain by enriching the environment with smells. (Microgen Images/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

The rest of the group were provided with a 'sham' that contained trace amounts of an odorant. All of the participants were required to use one of the oils with a diffuser to perfume their home for two hours every night over a six-month period, rotating through their menu of fragrances.

A battery of neuropsychological tests was then used to compare the volunteers' memory, verbal learning, planning, and attention-switching skills before and after the six-month trial.

Astonishingly, there was a clear 226 percent difference between the responses provided by those who were exposed to a variety of fragrances and individuals in the control group. A scan of their brains also revealed a significant change in the anatomy linking areas of the brain critical in memory and thinking within the test group.

As all of the volunteers were of similarly sound mental health, the researchers aim to now see if the results continue to hold for people already diagnosed with a degree of cognitive loss.

No matter what age or state of mind, giving your nose something to do when the lights go out and the silence sets in isn't exactly an unpleasant way to exercise the mind at night.

This research was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Full Article & Source:
Exposure to Certain Fragrances During Sleep Dramatically Boosts Cognitive Function

Friday, August 4, 2023

Johnston probate judge charged, placed on leave

Mayor: ‘Final determination of employment will be made upon the adjudication of her case’

Johnston’s probate judge has been placed on leave, following charges linked to an alleged million-dollar collectible theft from a dead Cranston man’s estate.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and the Rhode Island State Police (RISP) issued a press release Friday announcing charges against five defendants, including Johnston Probate Judge Priscilla Facha DiMaio.

DiMaio’s appointment to the bench was recommended by Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., and endorsed by a Town Council vote, during his inauguration in January.

Polisena conferred with Johnston Town Council President Robert V. Russo after the charges were made public.

“Priscilla has done an excellent job in her capacity as probate judge,” Polisena wrote via email on Tuesday morning. “Since I don’t appoint judges, the Town Council does, I’ve spoken to Council President Russo and we are both in agreement she’s placed on leave and a final determination of employment will be made upon the adjudication of her case. Just like everyone in the United States, she’s entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”

DiMaio has been charged with one count of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses over $1,500, and one count of providing a false document to a public official.

Meanwhile, cases pending in Johnston Probate Court will be heard by town and school solicitor William Conley Jr., who will fill the bench temporarily.

“Nothing is on hold,” Polisena said Wednesday morning. “Everything will continue as normal. The Town Solicitor will fill in until (an) interim probate judge is appointed by the council, which should be very soon. I think it’s safe to assume the interim probate judge will be Frank Manni, our current auxiliary judge, who fills in anyway when our judges are absent.”

DiMaio and her four fellow defendants have each been charged for their own alleged respective roles in “stealing valuable sports cards and firearms collections” from the estate of James Barbieri, 71, of Cranston, who died without a will on April 26, 2021, at Rhode Island Hospital.

According to Neronha’s office, the statewide grand jury returned sealed indictments on July 26 charging Sylvia Santilli, 71, Luke Baughman, 37, Jillian Chatelle, 32, James Connors, 69, and Judge DiMaio, 65, “with various crimes related to the theft of valuable property from the estate,” which prosecutors say included “collections of sports cards with an estimated value of more than $1 million and firearms worth more than $100,000.”

The prosecution will argue that while Barbieri was sedated and intubated in the hospital, “during the final days of his life,” two days before he took his last breath, Santilli allegedly started taking “items from his home without lawful claim or authority to do so.”

The AG’s office called Santilli “a close friend of Mr. Barbieri.”

Barbieri’s 2021 obituary lists only his late parents and mentions his retirement from tool-making.

“James leaves behind his dear friend, Sylvia Santilli of Johnston, and many other beloved friends,” according to the obituary.

Santilli, a Johnston real estate agent, did not return a call for comment.

Prosecutors allege that on the day Barbieri died, Santilli, her daughter, Chatelle, and Chatelle’s boyfriend, Baughman, searched “market rates for sports cards contained in Mr. Barbieri’s collection” on the internet.

“It is alleged the following day the co-defendants unlawfully removed sports cards and other items from the estate,” according to the AG’s Office. “It is alleged they later sold a portion of the collection, sought buyers for the collection, and transported the goods to a storage unit for later sale.”

Prosecutors will also attempt to prove that Connors, owner of Jim’s Firearm Repair and Sales in Johnston, “received and eventually sold firearms unlawfully removed from Mr. Barbieri’s estate,” according to the press release. “It is alleged that in response to a probate court subpoena, Connors knowingly submitted a false accounting and receipts of the firearms sold and their approximate value. It is alleged that Connors sold multiple firearms for more than the value of firearms that he reported to the Cranston Probate Court.”

That’s when DiMaio allegedly entered the scheme. The AG’s Office alleges Johnston Probate Judge DiMaio filed an Application for Approval of Fiduciary’s and Attorney’s Fees with the Cranston Probate Court “for work that she claimed to have performed for the Barbieri Estate for services on the following dates: May 8, May 9, May 12, May 15, and May 21, 2021.”

“These claims are alleged to be substantially false,” the AG’s Office said in the press release.

The indictment was unsealed on July 27, following the arraignments of Santilli, Chatelle and Connors in Providence Superior Court. All three entered not guilty pleas.

Baughman was scheduled to be arraigned on July 31. He pleaded not guilty.

DiMaio was scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday, Aug. 2, but online court records from the hearing were unavailable when the Johnston Sun Rise went to press Wednesday afternoon.

DiMaio did not respond to calls for comment by press-time.

According to the AG, Santilli has been charged with one count of entering a dwelling to commit larceny, two counts of larceny over $1,500, one count of obtaining money under false pretenses over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses, one count of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses, one count of conspiracy to attempt to obtain money under false pretenses, and one count of conspiracy to commit larceny.

Baughman has been charged with one count of receiving stolen goods over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to receive stolen goods, one count of obtaining money under false pretenses over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses, one count of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to attempt to obtain money under false pretenses, one count of larceny over $1,500 and one count of conspiracy to commit larceny.

Chatelle has been charged with one count of receiving stolen goods over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to receive stolen goods, one count of obtaining money under false pretenses over $1,500, one count of conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses, one count of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses over $1,500, and one count of conspiracy to attempt to obtain money under false pretenses.

And Connors has been charged with one count of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses over $1,500, one count of unlawful appropriation over $1,000, and three counts of providing a false document to a public official.

Full Article & Source:
Johnston probate judge charged, placed on leave

See Also:
Johnston probate judge pleads not guilty in stolen collectibles case

Johnston probate judge charged in alleged scheme to steal sports cards from man's estate

State Attorney announces new elderly exploitation case in Miami-Dade

Fernandez Rundle: Duo of fraudsters take advantage of vulnerable man with dementia

Roy Ramos, Reporter
Andrea Torres, Digital Journalist

MIAMI – Detectives accused two women — including one who was working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office — of defrauding an 82-year-old man in Miami.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the charges against Nerelis Leiva and Rita Benet on Tuesday saying the women stole from his bank account and attempted to steal his house in Coconut Grove.

“His vulnerabilities were acute,” Fernandez Rundle said about the victim adding that he had dementia and suffered a long-standing illness.

Fernandez Rundle described Leiva, 45, as a “predator” who befriended the victim at the doctor’s office in 2021, visited his home under the pretext of checking his blood sugar levels, and eventually moved in.

Mugshot for 45-year-old Nerelis Leiva.
Mugshot for 45-year-old Nerelis Leiva. (Miami-Dade County Corrections)

“Once Leiva began exercising dominion over her victim, the bank withdrawals went up to $500 increments several times a month,” Fernandez Rundle said.

Leiva hired Benet, 59, a notary with American International Business and Associates, who worked on the documents used to list the house — which was valued at over $2 million, according to Fernandez Rundle.

“Benet knew that our victim was incapable of understanding what these documents were, and what these documents meant for him and his property,” Fernandez Rundle said.

The victim, who died last year of an illness, had owned the home for over three decades, according to Fernandez Rundle.

Benet and Leiva are facing charges of exploitation of the elderly, grand theft on a person over 65 or older, and organized scheme to defraud.

Mugshot for 59-year-old Rita Benet
Mugshot for 59-year-old Rita Benet (Miami-Dade County Corrections)

Benet is also facing two counts of notary fraud, and Leiva is also facing charges of criminal use of personal identification information of a person over 60 years old and unlawfully filing a false document.

Fernandez Rundle said the victim’s alert neighbor reported there were parties at the house and something suspicious was going on. She asked that anyone who suspects elderly exploitation, call the task force at 786-804-6723.

Fernandez Rundle also said The Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts has a property fraud alert registration program to prevent real estate fraud. For more information, visit this page.

Full Article & Source:
State Attorney announces new elderly exploitation case in Miami-Dade

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Johnston probate judge pleads not guilty in stolen collectibles case


Johnston Probate Judge Priscilla Facha DiMaio enters a vehicle after pleading not guilty in Providence Superior Court to charges stemming from a stolen collectibles investigation, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (WJAR)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WJAR) — A Johnston probate judge went before a judge Wednesday to face charges stemming from the investigation into the theft of collectibles from a Cranston man's estate.

Johnston Probate Judge Priscilla Facha DiMaio and her attorney refused to comment after pleading not guilty to charges of attempting to obtain money under false pretenses over $1,500 and providing a false document to a public official.

A Johnston probate judge was on the other side of the bench on Wednesday, facing charges related to an alleged theft of collectibles from an estate. (WJAR)

A grand jury indicted five people, including DiMaio, for their roles in the alleged theft of valuable sports cards and guns from the estate of a Cranston man who died in 2021.

The sports cards had an estimated value of $1 million and the firearms were worth more than $100,000.

File image of Johnston probate judge Priscilla Facha DiMaio. (WJAR)

DiMaio is accused of filing an application for approval of fees for work she claims she did on the estate. Prosecutors said those claims are false.

Her bail was set at $10,000 personal recognizance.

Johnston probate judge Priscilla Facha DiMaio and her attorney refuse to answer questions following a court appearance connected to a theft case on Aug. 2, 2023. (WJAR)

Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena Jr. released a statement saying DiMaio was immediately placed on leave and a final decision about her employment will be made once the case is resolved.

DiMaio's attorney will be filing a waiver of extradition request so that she can visit her sister out of state and see clients.

She is due back in court in October.

Full Article & Source:
Johnston probate judge pleads not guilty in stolen collectibles case

See Also:
Johnston probate judge charged in alleged scheme to steal sports cards from man's estate

Co-owner, executive director charged after woman kicked out of Ga. assisted-living home News Staff

An assistant-living home co-owner and one of his employees have been charged after investigators say an elderly woman was kicked out of the home.

Ralph Cowart co-owns the Southern Manor at Candler off Fair Road in Statesboro and Meghan McCullough works as the executive director.

The Candler County Sheriff’s Office asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the home after a deputy found an elderly woman walking on the train tracks on June 23.

The woman told the deputy that Southern Manor kicked her out of the home. The deputy found the woman’s family who let her stay at their home until other arrangements could be made.

The investigation led GBI agents to arresting Cowart and McCullough.

Both of them are charged with the following: Neglect to a disabled adult, elder person, or resident; Exploitation and intimidation of disabled adults, elder persons, and residents; Reckless conduct causing harm to or endangering the safety of another; and Failure to report a case of abuse of disabled adult or elder

The Candler County Sheriff’s Office and GBI agents are still investigating the case. Anyone with information can reach out to 912-685-2568 or 912-871-1121

Full Article & Source:
Co-owner, executive director charged after woman kicked out of Ga. assisted-living home

73-year-old widow scammed out of life’s savings

The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office in investigating a substantial fraud complaint and elder abuse in Fenton Township after an elderly resident inadvertently drained her bank account.

 On Monday, July 3, at approximately 10:59 a.m., a deputy assigned to Fenton Township responded to a residence to investigate a scam report.

 Upon arrival, the deputy made contact with the 73-year-old female complainant who said she received a phone call around the second week of June from a male who identified himself as a representative from the Social Security office named Ted Planzos from Washington, D.C.

The victim said Planzos informed her that her identity has been compromised and that she needed to take out all of her money from her bank accounts and put it toward a Bitcoin account until the Social Security office gives her a new Social Security number.

 The man provided the woman with his badge number and case number to ensure she was speaking with a legitimate individual. She said she looked up Planzos and saw his name on the website and believed he was real.

 The woman said she went to her bank and withdrew four different times with the following amounts on different days: $20,000; $25,000; $25,000; $3,000, totaling $73,000.

 The woman said she then made 12 deposits into a Bitcoin account at a gas station on LeRoy Street in Fenton.

 The woman said the man had plans of having her withdraw money out of two accounts from her Social Security benefits, her late husband’s pension, and life insurance.

 She said he had her open an account through another bank and deposited $20 to open it. She said she contacted her estate planning advisor about the situation and they advised her to go to the police, along with a phone number for an attorney.

 The woman said she has gone to her local bank and they are now aware of the situation as well as any more suspicious activity.

 The deputy advised the woman to quell all communications with the man, and to contact the official Social Security Office, and any other bank institutes that have been affected. The GCSO Elder Abuse Task Force also is investigating.

Full Article & Source:
73-year-old widow scammed out of life’s savings

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

‘Emotional hackers’ scam $800K from Minneapolis woman’s father

by Corin Hoggard

A Minneapolis woman calls it emotional hacking: Scammers drained $800,000 from her father’s bank account.

He’s a 76-year-old Ukrainian immigrant with limited English skills. He sold his home in Washington State in April and essentially became homeless a week later. 

"I feel bad, very bad," said scam victim Bogdan Nalivaiko.

He's living out of a Motel 6 these days, a far cry from the 2,300 square-foot home he sold just a couple of months ago, eight years after his wife, Elena, passed away. He planned to live the rest of his life off the proceeds. But by the time movers came, Nalivaiko couldn’t pay, prompting a call to his daughter.

"He’s like ‘Yeah, you’ll see,'" said his daughter, Julia Elders. "And then I pressed him and pressed him and pressed him and finally he relented and said ‘I won sweepstakes.’ And I’m like ‘oh no.’"

Elders is the marketing and communications director at the St. Paul Jewish Federation, so she lives almost 1,700 miles away from her father. She knew what happened right away, but the scammers worked so quickly, she was too late.

The crooks called and texted Nalivaiko every day, convincing him to send cashier’s checks in amounts up $50,000, chipping away at his $800,000 balance.

"From April 26 to May 3, it went to zero," Elders said.

FOX 9 followed the trail of the rip-off artists to phone numbers and addresses all across the country. One number is connected to Exquisite Party Management in Florida. It’s a party entertainment service registered to Jenica Jones, which is also the name on two of the $50,000 cashier’s checks Nalivaiko sent.

We got Jones on the phone, but she hung up after this exchange.

"This man was scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and he sent you more than $50,000 in cashier’s checks," a FOX 9 reporter said to Jones.

"So what does that have to do with me?" she responded.

"Well, like I said, he sent you more than $50,000 in cashier’s checks and I’m trying to figure out why."

Listening to that brief conversation with someone possibly connected to the scheme brought Elders to tears.

"I keep coming up against this feeling of like how deep this is going," she said. "It’s really hard to wrap your head around the types of people that are involved, what other things they’re doing, what other kinds of crime is also being committed with this money."

Elders says Chase and Bank of America should’ve recognized the unusual transactions and stepped in.

"He doesn’t know what’s happening," she said. "He doesn’t know. He thinks the bank works for him. They let him withdraw $200,000 in the same day at two different branches. Are you kidding me?"

We reached out to the banks and both told us they needed more time to investigate the situation.

"I think banks are in the same position as us where they would like to prevent this before it even happens," said Seattle FBI Special Agent in Charge Kelly Smith.

The FBI is also investigating and Elders talked to an agent just before our interview, but she’s not convinced they’ll be able to scrape back much of her father’s money - if any.

"And the onus is on me," she said. "The FBI told me you have to be your own little sleuth."

The mover who tipped Elders off to her father’s problem is also still helping him out.

Joe Kenney is now working with Elders to help get her father in a more stable living situation and the online fundraiser should help with that. But Nalivaiko’s savings have vanished and he’ll live off a $1,600 per month Social Security income from here on out.

The FBI says elder fraud victims reported $3.1 billion in losses to their Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2022. That’s an 84% increase from 2021 and Elder warns it’ll get worse as AI improves, especially in mimicking voices.

Tips from federal agents: 

Prevention and public awareness are key. Once money has been transferred, especially overseas, it can be difficult to get back. However, the FBI and our law enforcement partners do our best to disrupt the criminal activity, but quick reporting to law enforcement is essential. Victims may be embarrassed to report to law enforcement, but fraud reported weeks or months later may be impossible to stop. We encourage people to resist the urgency the scammer attempts to create, possibly over the phone, and do their research separately. Individuals can also talk to their family, friends, and financial institution before sending any money to avoid becoming a scam victim. 

Consumers who believe they are the victim of a scam should:
• Contact their financial institution immediately upon suspecting or discovering a fraudulent transfer. 
• Ask their bank to contact the financial institution where the fraudulent transfer was sent. 
• Contact law enforcement. 
• File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at, regardless of dollar loss. Provide all relevant information in the complaint.

Full Article & Source:
‘Emotional hackers’ scam $800K from Minneapolis woman’s father

'Don't talk to strangers.' Top scams on seniors for 2023 and how to defend yourself

by Tim Botos


  • Scammers often target seniors because they have more money.
  • Assistant U.S. attorney shares details on how some scams work.
  • He also offered advice on how to avoid becoming a victim.

PLAIN TWP. ‒ Almost a century ago, the likes of Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger robbed banks, then made getaways by driving to the nearest state border.

But these days?

"You could be in your mother's basement and rob a bank in all 50 states," said Brian McDonough, an assistant U.S. attorney and elder justice coordinator for the Northern District of Ohio.

Evolving computer technology continuously breeds new criminal scams. Almost like a soup of the day, he told a group of about 135 people gathered at First Christian Church on Friday morning.

From 2017 through 2021, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received 2.76 million complaints, which amounted to $18.7 billion in financial loss to victims.

And many scams target seniors.

McDonough was a featured speaker at the 12th annual "Justice for All: Protecting the Elderly & Disabled Seminar," hosted by Stark County Probate Court and Judge Dixie Park, along with the Stark Multidisciplinary Advocacy and Protective Resources Team.

He told stories about cases he's handled in the state's 40 northern counties; how his own father fell for scams; even how William H. Webster — who was a former federal judge, past director of the FBI and one-time CIA director — was targeted.

"If he can be a target, ... anyone can," McDonough said.

What not to search on Google:Steer clear of online scams by avoiding these 5 search terms

Phishing, vishing, smishing and pharming

His more than 90-minute "Fighting Back Against Elder Fraud: Top Scams for 2023" presentation explained a variety of scams, and offered tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

The top-five frauds for this year, in order, fall within these general schemes: Business email compromise, romance scams, cryptocurrency, ransomware and tech support.

McDonough estimated that 70% of scams are initiated from outside the U.S. Criminals often try to mine personal data by phishing (through email), vishing (phone or VoIP), smishing (text messaging) and pharming (hacks of your computer).

"And they're very good at it," he said.

Criminals can easily make victims believe they are getting emails from their bank, or phone calls from hospitals or law enforcement, McDonough said. Seniors, he explained, are targeted because they tend to answer phone calls more than younger generations, and most importantly, they're more likely to have money to steal.

"Don't talk to strangers," he advised.

If it's important, the caller will leave a voice message.

How to avoid being scammed:Here's how to protect yourself from scammers

Reporting crimes can help catch criminals

McDonough has seen cases where wealthy seniors have lost $1 million and poor seniors have lost half their monthly income. He's witnessed everything from sextortion and lottery fraud to a church member who thought she was sending gift cards to her church pastor, so they could be used to help the poor.

"If anyone says pay with a gift card, that's a scam," he warned.

New twists on old scams will continue to make them even more convincing, McDonough warned.

For example, there's one where grandparents have been duped into handing over thousands of dollars, based on a phone call plea that one of their grandchildren has been arrested after an auto accident and needs bonded from jail.

"Now, with (artificial intelligence) ... that scam can (get really effective)," he said, describing how a teen's social media clips can be harvested by a criminal to create an entire vocabulary — in the teen's voice.

Sometimes, the best advice is to remain calm.

"Slow down and verify," McDonough said.

And one newer scam, which, he said, could wake him up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, is SIM swapping.

After gathering key personal information, the criminal contacts your cellphone carrier and gets them to switch your phone number to another SIM card, placed in the scammer's phone. It enables them to trample through the two-factor authentication many institutions now use, to access your money and even more data.

Too many victims, he said, are ashamed and embarrassed, so they never report being scammed. However, reporting and sharing information is key to catching scammers, he added.

Victims, McDonough said, don't have to sort out if it's a local, state or federal scam. He said they may simply call the National Elder Fraud hotline at 1-833-372-8311.

That's 1-833-FRAUD-11.

Full Article & Source:
'Don't talk to strangers.' Top scams on seniors for 2023 and how to defend yourself

State police looking for person who scammed elderly man out of over $100,000

The man said he received a call and was told he won the Megamillions jackpot and other prizes, and he had to send payments to get his winnings.

WNEP Web Staff  

RED ROCK, Pa. — State police in Luzerne County are looking for the person who scammed an elderly man out of more than $100,000.

Troopers say the man from Fairmount Township said he received a call in 2022 and was told he won the Megamillions jackpot, a new pickup truck, and $5,000 a week for life.

The victim was instructed to send payments through wire transfers to collect his winnings.

In all, the scammers stole about $110,000 dollars.

Full Article & Source:
State police looking for person who scammed elderly man out of over $100,000

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Adult care home owner sentenced to 21 years in death of patient he beat

by Elena Santa Cruz

Booking photo for Valer Catuna.

The owner of a Phoenix-based adult care home was sentenced to prison earlier this month in the death of a vulnerable adult entrusted to his care, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes announced on Thursday.

Mayes stated in a news release that Valer Catuna, 55, who was the part owner of Artemis Adult Care Home, will spend 21 years in prison in the 2020 death of 53-year-old William Griswold. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret La Bianca handed Catuna his sentence on July 14.

"The details of this case are unconscionable. Mr. Griswold deserved better, as all vulnerable adults do," Mayes stated in the release. "My office will not tolerate fraud and abuse perpetuated against our state's elderly and vulnerable residents — and those committing these crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

On Oct. 21, 2020, Catuna and Griswold had a dispute, the news release stated. Griswold had requested a cigarette, but the matter escalated with Catuna eventually pinning Griswold down on his bed and punching him on the side of his torso, the press release stated. Catuna broke seven of Griswold's ribs, ruptured his spleen and caused internal bleeding, according to the press release.

Catuna did not call for emergency medical services for Griswold for nine hours, according to the press release. Griswold died from his injuries that same night.

Griswold's death was initially ruled a medical event with no obvious signs of foul play. Catuna's spouse had called 911 to report that Griswold had died of natural causes. Neither Catuna or his spouse reported any assault, which police later learned about from another witness.

But after the Maricopa County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy, his death was ruled a homicide, according to a February 2021 statement released by Phoenix Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Andy Williams.

Catuna was then arrested on suspicion of Griswold's murder and later charged with second-degree murder and vulnerable adult abuse, according to the press release. In May, Catuna agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter.

Griswold was a patient diagnosed with numerous health and mental problems, the press release stated. These included a traumatic brain injury, which was caused by being struck by a car in 2017. Before his death, he had been a patient at the adult care home for almost 11 months.

Last month, Mayes announced the formation of a new Elder Affairs Unit within her office to better coordinate and strengthen efforts to combat fraud and abuse against Arizona's vulnerable adults, the press release stated.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix adult care home owner sentenced to prison in death of patient

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Adult care home owner sentenced to 21 years in death of patient he beat

Former APD officer charged for role in unlawful arrest

The New Mexico Attorney General's Office has filed charges against a former Albuquerque police officer who took part in an unlawful arrest of a person with disabilities.

According to the Attorney General's Office, former officer Kenneth Skeens played a role in the unlawful arrest of a person with disabilities who was struggling to complete a purchase at a retail store. The incident took place in August 2022.

In part, Attorney General Raul Torrez said, " Rather than acting as a professional public servant and a guardian of vulnerable members of this community, Mr. Skeens engaged in abusive and unlawful behavior that undermined public safety and violated his oath as a peace officer in the State of New Mexico.”

Skeens has been charged with false imprisonment, perjury, making a false report and battery.

Former APD officer charged for role in unlawful arrest

Former Albuquerque police officer charged for role in unlawful arrest of disabled man

Aiken woman charged with exploiting assisted living facility resident

By Matthew Christian

An Aiken woman faces up to 10 years in prison on charges she exploited a resident of an assisted living facility. 

The Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office and Aiken County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Katey Hartley Perkins, 51, of Aiken on July 13 and charged her with one count of exploiting a vulnerable adult and one count of forgery with a value less than $10,000.

Exploiting a vulnerable adult is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Forgery with a value less than $10,000 is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine in the discretion of the court. 

Investigators with the Medicaid Fraud Unit and the sheriff’s office said Perkins used the funds and assets of a vulnerable adult at an assisted living facility unlawfully and without permission. They also allege Perkins opened a bank account at TD Bank in the vulnerable adult’s name, deposited a life insurance check of $4,548.57 made out to the vulnerable adult and used that money for her own benefit.

This case will be prosecuted by Wilson’s office. 

Aiken County Magistrate Lauren Maurice set Perkins’s bond at $3,000 surety Thursday. 

Perkins remains in the Aiken County detention center as of 11 a.m. Monday. 

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Aiken woman charged with exploiting assisted living facility resident

Monday, July 31, 2023

The decision that can last a lifetime

By Samantha Hogan

Supported decision-making is a less restrictive alternative to guardianship for adults with disabilities, but it might not work for all. 

Cindy Thielen, 31, lives independently in Bangor. In 2011, the Hancock County Probate Court appointed her mother as Thielen's guardian — giving her mother legal control of all decisions in her daughter's life. Thielen attended the University of Maine, and in 2015 she asked the court to terminate the guardianship. It took until 2022 to end the guardianship. Photo by Samantha Hogan.

She didn’t drive.

She couldn’t schedule appointments on her own.

She wouldn’t be able to hold a job and was dependent on others to get through the day.

The petition filed in the Hancock County Probate Court by Julie Thielen-Montgomery in 2011 painted a helpless picture of her daughter, Cindy Thielen.

Thielen-Montgomery was asking the court to make her the guardian of her 19-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with autism at 13. That meant the mother would have complete control of her daughter’s life choices for years to come.

Cindy Thielen didn’t want this. She knew she needed some help but wanted to control her own life.

She was soft spoken and kept her eyes downcast when a court-appointed assessor, known as a “visitor,” met her to prepare a report for the judge. Her autism was a “pervasive developmental disorder” that may require Thielen to have a guardian for the rest of her life, the visitor wrote, urging that the guardianship be approved.

On the day of the hearing, Thielen wasn’t in the courtroom even though she wanted to be, she said later. A case manager told the judge it would cause Thielen too much anxiety to attend the hearing.

Thielen-Montgomery, in an interview, didn’t recall her daughter asking to be at the court, although she said her memory has faded in the 12 years since then. Thielen signed a court notice of the hearing, and she went to school that day like it was any other Tuesday. By the time she got home to their Ellsworth apartment that afternoon, her mother had the guardianship paperwork.

Thielen-Montgomery said guardianship was the right choice, “at the time, but I should have given her a chance.”

“I felt afraid of her getting used by somebody, (and them) taking advantage of her in regards to money,” Thielen-Montgomery said in a recent interview.

Everyone in Thielen’s life, at the time, was saying she couldn’t be on her own.

“I don’t think they felt like I was going to amount to much or have the chance to live on my own,” said Thielen, now 31 and living independently in Bangor. “It made me feel sad, because I knew that there was more that I could do to try to do good things in the world.”

For decades in Maine, when someone with an intellectual or developmental disability has turned 18, the decision by the courts often has been to put them in a guardianship — one that can last a lifetime.

Laws that went into effect in Maine in late 2019 require judges to first consider a less restrictive alternative called “supported decision-making,” a nationally recognized tool used by people with disabilities to help them assess the consequences of big and small decisions.

The person picks supporters and talks through a decision — like any adult might consult a friend in the medical profession before agreeing to surgery, or a group of friends would discuss ways to save money for a car.

Guardians are supposed to be a last resort to make medical, financial and housing decisions for an adult whom a judge deems cannot make or communicate their own choices.

But in the nearly four years since the law passed, Maine’s probate judges have infrequently gone for supported decision-making. A limited amount of training has been offered to probate judges on this alternative, and some say they are unsure how to apply it.

No court or state entity has tracked the use of supported decision-making. Nor does anyone track guardianships statewide.

Some of Maine’s 16 independent county probate courts only recently began tracking adult guardianships, a survey sent by The Maine Monitor in April found. Among the probate courts that responded to the survey, several didn’t know the number of active guardianships in their counties. A few courts said they don’t know if the people in guardianships are still alive, the Monitor reported in June as part of an ongoing investigation of the state’s part-time probate courts.

Supported decision-making avoids the severe restrictions of guardianship. The judge decides the adult can make choices, with help, and retains the right to make decisions without any further court involvement. But it may not work for everyone.

Some family members of adults with a range of disabilities say a full guardianship is essential to protect their relatives, who are vulnerable to scams, exploitation or abuse. They say having legal status as a guardian allows them to make decisions about medical care, education, housing and how fixed Social Security incomes are spent.

They are at odds with the state’s top disability advocacy organization, Disability Rights Maine, which has taken a hard-line stance against guardianship. The disability rights group contends that guardianships are overused in Maine. The organization has represented people with disabilities in probate court to end their guardianships. 

Too often attorneys with the organization said they find that people were not assigned a lawyer when a petition for guardianship was first filed with the probate court, said Lauren Wille, a disability rights attorney who used to be a criminal defense lawyer. 

“If the same percentage of criminal defendants did not have attorneys as people coming under guardianship — which is really just as restrictive — I think people would be flabbergasted,” said Wille.

One Topsham mother, Debbie Dionne, agonized about whether guardianship was necessary for her daughter, Kate Riordan, who has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability following a traumatic birth four decades ago. Dionne ultimately decided Riordan needed a guardian.

Kate Riordan smiles widely while sitting on the edge of her bed.
Kate Riordan, 43, smiles while visiting with her mother Debbie Dionne in Brunswick. Riordan has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability due to a traumatic birth. Photo by Fred J. Field.

Now 43, Riordan can select quickly on an iPad the people she wants to be with — Nancy, Kristi and Matt, who are friends she grew up with or lives with at a Brunswick group home. But she doesn’t know how long she has lived at her home or how to describe her medical needs.

Many are pushing supported decision-making, Dionne said, but she doesn’t see it as the right choice for everyone.

“You know in your heart what is best for your son or daughter, and I would never presume to make decisions for her,” Dionne said.

“Yeah!” Riordan said immediately.

Judges unsure

Probate judges considering less restrictive alternatives to a guardianship said there is little direction in the law. This has left some of them unsure about how to apply “supported decision making.” Yet the law requires probate judges to rule it out before appointing a guardian.

Judge William Avantaggio said he made supported decision-making a part of an order for limited guardianship in a few cases at the Lincoln County Probate Court.

The most successful supported decision-making cases are among family members who were already using it before coming to court, Avantaggio said. 

“It is difficult to blend with a court order,” Avantaggio said. “I’ve tried … in cases where it’s warranted to use more language like ‘obtain,’ ‘consider’ — that sort of stuff — but ultimately someone has to make a decision.”

The American Bar Association adopted a resolution in 2017 that urged states to amend their guardianship laws, and for courts to recognize supported decision-making as an alternative to guardianship.  

About one-third of states have a definition of supported decision-making in state law, according to a 2022 analysis by the American Bar Association.

Supported Decision-Making

Supported decision-making is a less-restrictive alternative to a full guardianship. It can be used in cases where an individual is able to function independently but needs help making some decisions.

Disability Rights Maine describes it as “a model to support people with disabilities in making and communicating their own decisions about their lives.’’

New legislation from 2019 requires probate judges to first consider “supported decision-making” before appointing a guardian. The person selects family members, friends or other trusted people to help them make big and small decisions outside the oversight or control of the probate courts.

Fifteen states have taken an additional step to define what a supported decision-making agreement entails or how it can be terminated, but Maine law does not.

For example, Rhode Island has strict rules about having written, signed and dated supported decision-making agreements that authorize certain people to help with specific decisions. The law also disqualifies an employer or a person paid to provide direct support services from helping with those decisions.

There is disagreement among guardianship experts about whether detailed laws about supported decision-making are necessary, said David English, a University of Missouri law professor and chair of the national committee that wrote the revised guardianship laws Maine adopted.

These laws can formalize the supported decision-making process and potentially give banks or medical providers more confidence in a person’s capacity to make their own choices, English said. But the laws various states passed are very detailed and are all different. 

“There’s a serious debate whether these detailed statutes are useful or effective,” said English.

There are also options other than full guardianship that already give another person the right to make limited decisions for another adult, such as a power of attorney or an advanced health-care directive. There are also arrangements that allow someone to manage the Social Security benefits of an adult who needs help.

The test

A probate judge in any adult guardianship case ultimately decides whether a person can safely make their own decisions or whether they need someone else to make them. 

Families in all walks of life find themselves in the courtroom to make this decision for parents with dementia, people in early adulthood with schizophrenia or teens with disabilities approaching their 18th birthdays.

Resisting a petition for guardianship can be particularly challenging for young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. They are in the unique position of having to prove to a judge at age 18 that they are capable of making “good choices.” Complex family dynamics are often at play and teens don’t realize the rights they are giving up when they agree to let a parent be a guardian, legal experts said. And the outcome can be permanent.

“Guardianship takes away your civil rights. It takes away your civil liberties and formally — not in some abstract way — is the court taking away your rights and giving those rights to someone else to hold on your behalf or exercise on your behalf,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, an attorney with the national ACLU Disability Rights Program. 

Guardianship can be hard to undo. It is not a simple matter of a guardian agreeing to relinquish their decision-making power, she said. A judge needs to be convinced that the adult has regained the capacity to make their own decisions. The judge can assign another guardian if the judge thinks the person still lacks a decision-making capacity. It’s a monumental task for any adult, whether they have a guardian because of illness, injury, age or disability.

“Very often, people end up staying in guardianships because they still have a disability,” Brennan-Krohn said. “You don’t stop having most types of disabilities.”

Brenda Clough has worked as a case manager for Special Children’s Friends in Hancock County for more than 15 years. She starts advising parents about guardianship when their children reach high school. It all comes down to safety, she said. Together they go in detail through the teen’s skills, such as their ability to use a stove or a toaster oven without catching themselves or the kitchen on fire, she said.

“Most of my kids have gone to full guardianship with the intent that supported decision-making will be reconsidered in the future once the skills are learned,” Clough said.

But reconsideration of a guardianship for supported decision-making has not happened with her clients, Clough acknowledged. In fact, the opposite has happened, with some parents seeking full guardianships, she said.

Disability Rights Maine trained 2,000 family members, case workers, lawyers and probate judges about supported decision-making as the law was coming into effect. The group also wrote a user guide and provided copies to each probate court.

“The default in Maine used to be full guardianship at 18,” said Staci Converse, a managing attorney with Disability Rights Maine.

Maine’s new guardianship law is a leap forward in progressive thinking about guardianship, she said. 

Still, some forms the probate courts rely on to evaluate the need for a guardian are skewed toward finding the adult lacks the ability to make decisions on their own, she said. 

For example, a doctor’s report is required with every guardianship petition. The two-page form asks the medical professional to check boxes on a list of skills the person is incapable of doing, such as finding a home, pursuing medical care or appropriately spending money.

“It leads almost to a determination that a person needs a guardian as written,” Converse said. 

A court-appointed visitor also is assigned during every adult guardianship case to advise the person of their rights and make a recommendation to the probate judge. There is no formal training program for the visitors, and they had limited training after the guardianship law changed in 2019.

Susan Mauro, a visitor contracted with the Kennebec County Probate Court, said adding supported decision-making to the law made her job more difficult and “clouded” the choice between guardianship or not. 

Mauro’s recommendations are based on an interview with the adult and proposed guardian. She watches their behavior to see if they’re aware of their surroundings, she said. For example, when she asks a teen with an intellectual disability about their date of birth or hobbies and they look to their parents, “you can see that they’re not ready to be a fully independent adult,” Mauro said.

Judge Elizabeth Mitchell, who assigns Mauro to cases, said she makes her own determination and doesn’t always follow a visitor’s recommendation. 

“(The) probate court does not order supported decision-making. We ask on all our forms that petitioners and visitors explore that as a possibility,” Mitchell said.

‘Kate is thriving’

Kate Riordan wants to know when certain workers will be at the house. She wants the pictures, plush bears and flowers on her nightstand arranged a certain way. And she wants to spontaneously call family members on FaceTime. Riordan is a strong-willed woman living with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, and she relies on her mother, who is also her guardian, to make major decisions. 

Riordan’s mother, Debbie Dionne, struggled to decide whether to seek guardianship when Riordan turned 18. Dionne decided it was the best option to ensure Riordan’s medical and housing needs were met while leaving Riordan in control of her daily social decisions.

A barrier to Dionne and Riordan using supported decision-making is that Riordan does not initiate decision-making. She does not have the language tools to ask for advice, Dionne said. When a decision needs to be made, Dionne starts their discussions.

Kate Riordan and her mother Debbie Dionne pose for a photo in the hallway of a home.
Kate Riordan, left, and her mother Debbie Dionne in the hallway of Riordan’s group home in Brunswick. Dionne struggled with the choice to seek guardianship of Riordan when she turned 18. Ultimately, Dionne decided guardianship was the best option. Photo by Fred J. Field.

Riordan has used sign language since she was in preschool, but because she has cerebral palsy, she lacks the fine motor skills to spell words with her fingers. She fills in the gaps with gestures, spoken words, and an iPad filled with icons and programmed responses representing her favorite foods, family members and critical information like her full name and address. 

Dionne fills in the missing details during an interview on a recent Tuesday, asking Riordan, “Can I add a little bit to that? Is that OK?”

Riordan’s life is full of choices at the home she shares with other adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities run by the Independence Association in Brunswick. She moves freely around the one-story building, eating meals in the large central kitchen, watching Animal Planet in the living room, and making crafts from the beads, paper and paints that are always available.

Riordan is Dionne’s only child. Dionne labored for more than 14 hours at the Parkview Adventist Medical Center, now Mid Coast Hospital, in Brunswick on Oct. 28, 1979. The fetal monitor strapped across her full-term abdomen showed a flat line. Riordan arrived in the world without a sound.

“It seemed like forever, but it was 10 minutes,” Dionne said. “She was resuscitated by the pediatrician. He just kept working on her and working on her. And she didn’t cry and she didn’t cry; then finally, it was this horrid cry.”

Doctors said Riordan would be tube-fed the rest of her life, wouldn’t sit up, wouldn’t walk and would be blind. Dionne was advised soon after birth to send Riordan to live at the Pineland Center, the state’s institution for the disabled. Pineland closed in 1996.

Only one doctor offered a different opinion: “You should take her home and love her just like you would have if this never happened. Just love her.”

Riordan rose above the doctors’ expectations. She started walking when she was 8 years old and still uses a rolling walker for balance. She wears lavender glasses over attentive blue eyes. She loves to eat lobster – like a true Mainer.

Her favorite hobby is “bowling,” she says, using an iPad. She navigates to the “people in my life” and selects Matt, or “Hubba Hubba,” who she plays Wii bowling with, and is her longterm boyfriend. There’s a framed picture of them on her dresser.

“I’m a very different person than I was when she was born,” said Dionne. “Sometimes you don’t always get what you want, but it’s actually better. You have all these dreams.”

Dionne, 71, trails off at the end of her thought. She, like many parents, dreams of a day that their child could be independent. She worries about who will take over as guardian when she is gone.

Debbie Dionne and Kate Riordan smile while looking at an ipad and sitting on a bed.
Debbie Dionne, left, and her daughter Kate Riordan, shared a FaceTime call with Riordan’s aunt on an iPad. Photo by Fred J. Field.

Dionne has seen Riordan shut down when she can’t tell people what she likes. During one particularly difficult period, “she retreated, got depressed, lost 10 pounds,” said Dionne. Riordan started seeing a counselor who uses sign language and has improved.

Riordan’s life is the best and most stable it has been in a long time, and that is because she’s had a guardian intervening. Riordan pats a spot on the bed beside her, inviting her mother to sit. Together, with gentle suggestions from Dionne, Riordan finds the answers to questions on her iPad. When asked, Riordan knows that her mother is her guardian. She doesn’t have the words to say what a guardian does.

“Kate is thriving and happy and flourishing,” Dionne said, “because I’m in her life and making sure that happens.”

Overuse of guardianship?

Maine adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities who receive state services appear to be subjected to full guardianship much more often than the national average, although that may be changing.

Maine contracts with providers of group homes, day programs and shared living arrangements to meet people’s needs, which are funded by MaineCare. Two major programs are the Section 21 and Section 29 waivers.

There are 1,985 adults waiting for the Section 21 waiver, which supports people who need near-constant supervision, according to state data

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation are the state’s top priority for any opening in the Section 21 waiver program, according to state rules. Those with a lower priority level can wait years for a spot to open. The state is in the process of creating a new “lifetime waiver” to eliminate the wait lists, the Monitor reported in January.

A survey of 400 adults in Maine receiving Section 21 and Section 29 waiver services found 60% had a full guardianship. The finding, part of the 2018-2019 National Core Indicators survey, is above the national average of 33% of surveyed adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities having full guardianships.

The Maine Developmental Disabilities Council testified to state lawmakers in 2019 that they did not know why Maine’s use of guardianship is so high, and would welcome legislation “that has the potential to impact guardianships.”

Current state data indicates that 495 adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are subject to guardianship in Maine, making up 8% of individuals in the state’s Sections 21 and 29 waiver programs, said Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman with the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Disability Rights Maine, the state’s designated Protection and Advocacy agency for people with disabilities, has taken the stance that guardianship is not justified if a person can communicate, even minimally. 

There are people within the disability community who may never be able to use supported decision-making. And attempts to remove guardianship as an option in Maine have frightened parents of adults with complex needs. 

One of those parents, Kim Humphrey of Auburn, gave up a career in public health to advocate for her son, Dan Humphrey.

At age 2, Dan was diagnosed with congenital dysphagia with the possibility of autism, which was later confirmed to be autism. He requires around-the-clock support from multiple people to get through the day. He communicates with head nods, and has an iPad but only limited capacity to navigate it. He was enrolled at an out-of-state school specializing in students with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities from ages 11 to 20, where he received one-to-one support. 

With the right help, Dan, now 34, can help deliver food through Meals on Wheels with his support team, be better understood by those who help care for him, and care for his basic hygiene. Without support, those skills diminish. And when there are not enough direct support professionals or if the people don’t understand Dan, or if he’s in pain, he can also become aggressive, his mother said. 

“If you say that ‘nobody’ needs a guardian and then you meet somebody like him, well then, is he nobody?” Kim said.

Kim explored 10 provider agencies that operate group homes that could possibly meet her son’s needs when it was time to move Dan back to Maine. Without the full authority of guardianship, she doesn’t think she could have gotten him into the right home. Dan was approved for a Section 21 waiver in 2009. 

None of the nine guardians interviewed by the Monitor said they wanted to take away decisions from their relative with a disability. Their fears were of fires – set in kitchens when unattended – food eaten in excess, to the point they became sick, or situations where sexual exploitation was possible.

Maine is transitioning from all guardianships to some supported decision-making, said Margaret Cardoza of Portland, an adult living with a developmental disability. 

“Just like any law that gets changed. It may be the law, but the lifestyle, the culture, the traditions, the attitudes take longer to adjust. And attitudes are the most difficult part that needs to change,” Cardoza said. “It’s about time.”

Cardoza is married and owns a home. She is also a vocal self-advocate and has pushed for the state to make supported decision-making available to people with disabilities since 2013. Through her advocacy she’s met other people with disabilities who have not been allowed to get married, live in places that allow them to come and go freely, or even vote. 

Under guardianship, adults retain only three privileges — the right to marry, vote and retain a lawyer. Still, probate judges have the discretion to take away the privileges to marry and vote. 

People with disabilities, such as Cardoza, who are visibly “on the front lines” advocating for themselves for self-determination, choice, independence and civil rights, have the potential to do a lot of good to eliminate the stigma of people with disabilities, Kim said. 

But people like her son, and some people with higher needs, are not among them and may never be, she said.

The strong opposition to anything other than supported decision-making risks cutting services, policies, money and resources for people who need guardianship. The stigmatization of guardians also has the risk of dividing the disability community between the people who need guardians and those who don’t — making the people in guardianship invisible, Kim said.

A journey to be free

As Cindy Thielen tells it, no one would listen when she spoke about her future.

A curtain of long brown hair covers Thielen’s profile, and she speaks softly with a unique rhythm. Years of speech therapy fixed what she describes as “gibberish” she spoke as a young child. She also spent a long time working on making eye contact with people. 

One of her special education teachers in high school said she “sounded like a 5-year-old,” Thielen recalled.

How a person speaks can be a flawed measure of their ability to make decisions, especially people with disabilities who may speak in an unconventional way. 

“A lot of our clients communicate in sort of non-traditional ways,” said Wille, the lawyer with Disability Rights Maine. “You spoke with Cindy (Thielen); her voice is not a traditional voice. People hear her voice and they jump to all sorts of conclusions about her. And then when you hear what she’s actually saying, she breaks apart those notions.”

Cindy Thielen poses for a photo against a colorful background.
Cindy Thielen, who has autism, was under guardianship until 2022. Photo by Samantha Hogan.

Thielen, who uses supported decision-making informally, said people see her differently because of her autism. With her disability, it was assumed she couldn’t attend college, even with good grades and after taking the SAT. 

The special education teachers recommended Thielen do two more years of high school and not graduate when she was 18. Instead, her mom suggested a compromise, Thielen recalled. She would complete an additional year at the Hancock County Technical Center, where she was already attending half of the school day.

“I would say what I wanted, and it seemed like it would go their way anyway,” Thielen said. “They wanted me to stay back and graduate essentially with a blank diploma cover, and I didn’t want that. I got so upset, I wanted to almost walk out the door.”

Most parents pursue guardianship of a child with disabilities, said Linda Henderson, who was Thielen’s case manager and who filled out much of the guardianship petition and plan that was submitted to the probate court in 2011. Parents often want help going through the court process, she said. 

Henderson said she did not remember Thielen, and that she was not the typical client if she was able to attend college. Thielen clearly had strengths, Henderson said.

“I don’t think she quite understood the legality of what guardianship meant,” Thielen said of her mother, who went to probate court in 2011 to gain guardianship of Thielen, “because I don’t think she really understood what was involved and what she had to do.”

Thielen told The Maine Monitor that her life was far less stable than the one described on paper to the probate court. 

Thielen-Montgomery struggled to get approved for Social Security disability benefits for more than three years following a workplace injury, she said. The checks were not enough to cover all their living expenses.

They were forced out of their apartment in Ellsworth because the electricity was shut off, and they briefly lived in a homeless shelter in late 2011, Thielen said. Her mother abandoned another apartment and moved into a private residence where Thielen said she didn’t feel safe. In 2015, her mother withheld two months of Thielen’s Social Security disability payments — worth $1,466, a probate judge ruled.

Thielen doesn’t believe her mother was ill-intended with the guardianship. But it meant Thielen-Montgomery controlled the bank account where her Social Security disability payments were deposited. Thielen-Montgomery said Thielen had a debit card and they would discuss what to buy.

Thielen also could not sign paperwork at the doctor’s office on her own, and the physician would speak directly to her mother — even when Thielen was in the room, she said. Thielen-Montgomery said this was true, and that the doctors should have spoken to Thielen.

During those tumultuous years, Thielen had applied and was accepted into college. From her dorm room in 2015, Thielen emailed the probate court and asked to terminate her mother’s guardianship. 

By then, she was about halfway to graduating from the University of Maine with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in studio art. She’d lived on campus, and had navigated the social and academic demands of college.

She was immediately appointed an attorney, which Thielen had not been afforded when she was 19 and her mom was first seeking to be made Thielen’s guardian. 

After one hearing, the judge suspended the guardianship.

Adults subject to a guardianship petition are advised they have the right to hire a lawyer, but are also told that the cost of paying for a lawyer may come out of their own pockets. 

A state bill proposed in 2019 would have required lawyers for all adult guardianship cases. Probate judges were among the stakeholders to object, in part because of the added cost to county budgets. The bill did not pass.

“This is another unfunded mandate, mostly unnecessary. Now if the State agrees to pay for all those attorneys, I might be OK with it even though I’m not convinced that it is totally necessary,” Somerset County Probate Judge Robert Washburn wrote in an email to the other judges at the time.

All 10 probate courts that responded to a Monitor survey said they will assign an attorney if the person opposes a guardianship. Probate courts are separate from the rest of Maine’s judiciary and are funded by county governments.

In Thielen’s situation, the guardianship suspension left her case in limbo. She graduated from college in 2017, started working in the Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies at the university, and moved into her own apartment, but technically she was not free. 

In November 2021, Disability Rights Maine intervened to finish the termination of her mother’s guardianship. Thielen-Montgomery didn’t fight the request, she said.

“I felt as though she could handle it and I knew my daughter well enough — she still calls me on a daily basis. We do that. She communicates with me what she needs and what she might get and she asks me, ‘what do I think?’ ” Thielen-Montgomery said.

It had been nearly 11 years since the day Thielen came home from school and her mom had those guardianship papers. 

Eleven years since she lost control of her own life.

Eleven years since she could make almost any significant decision on her own.

On April 12, 2022, a probate judge gave Thielen her life back. 

“There’s a lot of us out there that want to prove — yes we can,” she said.

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The decision that can last a lifetime