Saturday, November 18, 2023

Attorney General Bonta Announces Conviction in Placer County Elder Abuse Case

— California Attorney General Rob Bonta today announced securing guilty verdicts against a Placer County woman for committing financial fraud against her elderly mother. Defendant Betty Ann Engelbrecht stole more than $500,000 from her mother's bank account and was convicted today of two felony counts. The investigation and prosecution of this case was handled by the California Department of Justice (DOJ). Financial exploitation and fraud is the most prevalent — but one of the least reported — forms of elder abuse. According to the National Council of Aging, in nearly six out of ten cases of elder abuse, the abuse is perpetrated by family members.

“All too often, our elder citizens are made victims of abuse and fraud by those they should be able to trust the most — their own family,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Not only is this a cruel betrayal of trust, it can wreak havoc on the health, mental health, and financial safety of our seniors. Today’s conviction should send a strong message: The California Department of Justice will not tolerate abuse or crimes targeting our state’s elders. I am grateful to my team of investigators and prosecutors who work hard every day to safeguard and empower California’s senior citizens.”

DOJ's investigation revealed that Engelbrecht was given Power of Attorney (POA) to manage the finances of her elderly mother, who was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease. Between 2013 and 2017, while acting as her mother's POA, she transferred more than a hundred thousand dollars from her mother's bank accounts into her own, and spent the vast majority for her own benefit, leaving almost no funds for her mother's continued care and treatment.

Yesterday, after a four-week trial in the Placer County Superior Court in Auburn, Engelbrecht was found guilty of two felony counts of grand theft from an elder. Engelbrecht’s sentencing hearing is not yet scheduled. 

Each year, millions of elderly Americans fall victim to some form of financial exploitation. According to estimates, nearly $3 billion is lost annually due to elder fraud and scams.

DOJ's Division of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse (DMFEA) works to protect Californians by investigating and prosecuting those responsible for abuse, neglect, and fraud committed against elderly and dependent adults in the state, and those who perpetrate fraud on the Medi-Cal program.

If you believe you have been the victim of elder abuse, or if you know or suspect a case of elder abuse, we urge you to report it to the DMFEA by:

DMFEA receives 75% of its funding from HHS-OIG under a grant award totaling $87,038,485 for federal fiscal year 2024. The remaining 25% is funded by the State of California. The federal fiscal year is defined as October 1, 2023 through September 30, 2024.

Placer County woman convicted of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her elderly mother

By Brandon Downs

PLACER COUNTY - A Placer County woman was convicted of four felonies, including stealing more than $500,000 from her mother's bank account, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on Wednesday.

After a four-week trial, Betty Ann Engelbrecht was convicted of two counts of grand theft from an elder and two counts of grand theft.

Bonta said between 2013 and 2017, Engelbrecht was acting as her mother's power of attorney to manage her mother's finances following a neurodegenerative disease diagnosis.

Engelbrecht transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars from her mother's bank account to her own, Bonta said. She then spent the majority of the money and left her mother no funds for her care and treatment.

A sentencing for Engelbrecht has not been set yet.

Bonta said millions of Americans are victims of some sort of financial exploitation. He said nearly $3 million is lost every year due to elder fraud and scams, and financial exploitation and fraud are the most prevalent forms of elder abuse. 

"All too often, our elder citizens are made victims of abuse and fraud by those they should be able to trust the most — their own family," Bonta said.

Full Article & Source:
Placer County woman convicted of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from her elderly mother

Jury acquits woman accused of stealing from a man with dementia

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — A jury acquitted a Shenandoah County woman Tuesday of charges of taking money from a man diagnosed with dementia.

Tracy Ann Phillips faced 21 charges of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Phillip’s two-day trial began Monday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court. Winchester attorney Charles I. Billman represented Phillips. Shenandoah County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney John G. Cadden prosecuted the case.

Jurors found Phillips not guilty on all counts on Tuesday night.

A grand jury handed up indictments on May 10 charging Phillips, 58, of Basye, on 19 felony counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult for $1,000 or more, and two misdemeanor counts of the same charge for less than $1,000.

Authorities accused Phillips of taking approximately $40,000 from her friend Harold Fossett over a two-year span ending in the summer of 2022. Phillips was suspended from her job as a teacher at North Fork Middle School when she was indicted. Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Melody Sheppard did not respond to an email Wednesday asking about Phillips’ employment status.

At the trial, the prosecution needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Phillips took money from Fossett knowing that he has been diagnosed with dementia and that she permanently deprived him of the funds. Cadden said in his closing argument that Phillips knew of Fossett’s diagnosis and his declining health while she took money from Fossett almost every month.

Fossett and Phillips had an arrangement by which she would deposit checks from his pension into a joint bank account, evidence introduced at the trial showed. The prosecution accused Phillips of then transferring money into her separate account. Cadden showed jurors a series of checks signed by Fossett that were made out to and endorsed by Phillips for amounts ranging from $200 to $3,700. Most checks were written out for $1,000.

The Loudoun County Department of Social Service opened an adult protective service case in the summer of 2022 in response to concerns by Fossett’s family members who said that Phillips had been taking money from the man’s account. Fossett’s brother, Kenneth, told Phillips to stop taking money from the account, which she did. However, Cadden argued that Phillips did not return the money once she was notified she was the subject of the protective services investigation.

“So I don’t understand how it’s possible to know that you have this investigation going ... and you still don’t return the money,” Cadden said.

Billman argued that the prosecution, even by its own evidence, did not prove its case. Billman said that Fossett, in his own words, knew Phillips took money out of the joint account. Fossett testified at the trial, despite an effort by the commonwealth to declare him incompetent to do so.

“You saw Harold, right there, repeatedly saying ‘I gave her the money,’” Billman said. “When she opened a new account, Harold said right there, ‘I knew that. I was sitting right next to her ...

“Are we going to completely discount Harold in this, the victim?” Billman said. “He testified twice. Not once did he say, ‘you know what, I’ve been taken advantage of.’”

Fossett said in notes written prior to the trial that he and Phillips had the arrangement and to blame him, not her, for any problems related to his finances.

Moreover, Billman said, the prosecutor failed to prove Phillips knew Fossett had dementia because the diagnosis had not been made until September 2022, after the period in which the commonwealth claimed she exploited Fossett. Phillips stopped taking money from Fossett when members of his family told her to, Billman said.

Full Article & Source:
Jury acquits woman accused of stealing from a man with dementia

Friday, November 17, 2023

Pennsylvania Guardian Gloria Byars & Her Co-Conspirator Found Guilty of Stealing From Elderly Wards

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA –United States Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero announced that Gloria Byars, 62, of Aldan, PA and Carlton Rembert, 69, of Hampton, VA were both found guilty for their roles in a scheme to defraud elderly, incapacitated people of over $1 million. Byars entered a guilty plea on the eve of trial, pleading guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax fraud. Her co-conspirator and brother Carlton Rembert proceeded to trial and after a four-day trial, a jury found Rembert guilty of conspiracy, bank fraud, and wire fraud.

Between 2012 and 2018, Byars and her co-conspirators stole the life savings from dozens of incapacitated wards while Byars served as their court-appointed guardian. Prior to operating her own guardianship company, Byars was an office manager for a guardianship company in Delaware County that was appointed to care for wards in Pennsylvania. As office manager, and then as guardian herself through her own company, Byars had unfettered access to wards’ property including bank accounts, pensions, real estate, retirement accounts, and other assets. Byars stole money from the wards’ bank accounts by writing unauthorized checks to companies she controlled, or to shell companies controlled by her co-conspirators, Rembert and Alesha Mitchell. Rembert and Mitchell assisted Byars in the theft by opening bank accounts in their home state of Virginia in the names of shell companies purporting to be medical services companies. Rembert and Mitchell deposited dozens of checks containing stolen ward money into their shell business bank accounts, withdrew over $500,000 in cash, and sent most of the stolen proceeds back to Byars, after keeping a share of the stolen ward money for themselves. Byars spent the stolen ward money on vacations, clothing, vehicles, gifts, and parties.

As part of Byars’ plea agreement, she agreed to forfeit 36 gold Krugerrand coins, valuable gold coins first minted in South Africa in the 1960s to introduce the country’s gold supply onto the world market. Byars stole several Krugerrand coins from the bank safe deposit box of one of her wards. Byars also stole over $756,000 from a retired federal employee’s Thrift Savings Plan. In total, Byars and her co-conspirators stole well over $1 million from at least 120 incapacitated people in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Byars and Rembert face the following maximum possible sentences. For conspiracy to commit bank fraud and for bank fraud, the maximum sentence is 30 years’ imprisonment and a $1,000,000 fine. For wire fraud, the maximum sentence is 20 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Byars also faces a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment and a $500,000 fine for money laundering and for filing a false tax return, the maximum sentence is 3 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

“Byars and Rembert’s actions caused significant financial and emotional harm to their victims,” said U.S. Attorney Romero. “Fraud, particularly at the expense of vulnerable people, will not be tolerated.”

“Gloria Byars was entrusted with managing the assets of elderly folks unable to do so themselves,” said Richard Langham, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. “Instead, she abused her role as a guardian, poaching the nest eggs of these vulnerable wards, figuring they’d never even know. The FBI takes great satisfaction in bringing Byars and her co-conspirators to justice and preventing them from doing more harm. Elder fraud and abuse are simply unconscionable. If you think you’re being victimized like this or know someone who is, please reach out to the FBI – anonymously, if you like.”

“IRS-Criminal Investigation is committed to aggressively investigating individuals who engage in money laundering, tax fraud, or other types of white-collar crimes,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Yury Kruty.  “We, along with our law enforcement partners and the Department of Justice will continue to work to ensure that individuals who attempt to hide their criminal involvement will be held accountable.”

“The conviction of Gloria Byars and Carlton Rembert demonstrates the shared commitment of the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office and United States Attorney’s Office in pursuing justice for our most vulnerable residents. I want to thank the United States Attorney’s Office and Federal Bureau of Investigation for working with us on this important guardianship fraud prosecution. I would also like to thank Douglas Rhoads, Deputy District Attorney of Special Investigations, and Detective Edward Rosen of our Criminal Investigation Division for their work on this matter,” said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.  

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Criminal Investigation Division, and the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Tiwana Wright and Samuel Dalke.

Updated November 16, 2023

Missouri AG Files Suit Against Nixa Business Owner

(KTTS News) — The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has filed a lawsuit against the owner of a Nixa contracting business.

Richard B. Gillette, the owner of Premiere Exterior Solutions, is charged with three counts of deceptive business practices, two counts of stealing, and one count of financial exploitation of the elderly.

It comes after a complaint filed in August in Greene County Circuit Court.

Gillette’s business was the focus of a July 2023 Better Business Bureau consumer warning.

BBB says a search of Missouri court records found four civil cases against Richard Blay Gillette or Premiere Exterior Solutions.

The company received an “F” rating.

He owes various creditors and customers more than $120,000 according to allegations or judgments in cases filed in St. Charles, Christian, Stone, and Taney counties.  

BBB says Gillette failed to start or finish projects or issue refunds.

Press Release

The owner of a Nixa, Missouri, contracting business, which was the focus of a July 2023 Better Business Bureau (BBB) consumer warning, has been charged with six felony counts in a lawsuit brought against him by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

Richard B. Gillette, who operated Premiere Exterior Solutions, was charged with three counts of deceptive business practice, two counts of stealing and one count of financial exploitation of the elderly in a complaint filed in late August in Greene County Circuit Court.

“We applaud the action of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office,” said Pamela Hernandez, BBB Springfield regional director. “BBB encourages consumers who feel they have been deceived by a company to register a complaint with BBB and your state attorney general’s office.”

Full Article & Source:
Missouri AG Files Suit Against Nixa Business Owner

Man charged with swindling $100K from elderly East Point victim

Keiwon Tucker (East Point Police Department)

- A man faces several charges after East Point police say he swindled $100,000 from a 91-year-old resident.

Keiwon Jerome Tucker was arrested last week and is now out on bond.

While police didn't say how Tucker allegedly convinced his elderly victim to give him the money, they described the crime in a Facebook post as "disgusting."

Tucker is now facing a long list of charges including exploitation and intimidation of disabled adults and elder abuse, transaction card theft, theft by taking, and possession of stolen mail.

If you have any information that could help investigators, call the East Point Police Department. 

Full Article & Source:
Man charged with swindling $100K from elderly East Point victim

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Aging summit confronts Connecticut seniors’ issues

by: Braley Dodson

PLANTSVILLE, Conn. (WTNH) — An annual aging summit Monday focused on evictions, housing subsidies and a lack of affordable housing for seniors.

AgingCT, a statewide partnership, informed social workers, city employees, care managers, resident service coordinators and others about the issues the elderly are facing.

“We’re going to be talking about supported decision making, how to help someone without conserving them,” said Marie Allen, the president and CEO of the Connecticut Agency on Aging.

Full Article & Source:
Aging summit confronts Connecticut seniors’ issues

Griffin announces conviction in elder abuse case


Following a guilty plea entered by Celia Fuller, 53, of Mayflower in Pulaski County Circuit Court on Oct. 23, Attorney General Tim Griffin issued the following statement:

“Earlier this week the prosecution of Celia Fuller for exploitation of an impaired person, a class B felony, was finalized. I take the protection of Arkansas seniors seriously and will use all the resources of my office to prosecute those who would exploit our vulnerable elders.

“I am proud of the work done by my office’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in this case, particularly investigator Dane Pederson and Assistant Attorney General Gabby Davis-Jones.”

Fuller pleaded guilty to this charge on Oct. 23, admitting that she had stolen money from Bobby Sandage while working for him as a personal care aide. She stole money from Sandage by writing checks to herself using Sandage’s personal checkbook, including writing checks after Sandage passed away last year.

Fuller was sentenced to five years of probation, a $100 fine plus court costs and $10,900 in restitution.

Full Article & Source:
Griffin announces conviction in elder abuse case

Mason City man pleads guilty to financial exploitation of a dependent adult

By Mike Bunge

Michael Studer

MASON CITY, Iowa – A plea deal is struck over money stolen from a dependent adult.

Michael Edward Studer, 63 of Mason City, was initially charged with first-degree theft and financial exploitation of an older individual.

Studer was accused of using his Power of Attorney to transfer or withdraw more than $50,000 from the bank account of a dependent adult between June 2021 and December 2022.  Court documents state the victim’s home fell into foreclosure because of that theft.

Studer has now pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree theft.  His sentencing is scheduled for January 8, 2024.

Full Article & Source:
Mason City man pleads guilty to financial exploitation of a dependent adult

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Alaska’s outsourcing of guardianship led to dysfunction and debt

By Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage 

When the state of Alaska transferred dozens of public guardianship cases to a nonprofit last year, the results included extended hospital stays, thousands of dollars in debt and lapses in public benefits for some of Alaska’s most vulnerable residents.

That’s according to a recent story in the Anchorage Daily News

ADN reporter Iris Samuels says the state has been swamped with public guardianship cases in recent years, which led them to outsource dozens of them.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Iris Samuels: We’ve known for a while that the public guardian section in the Office of Public Advocacy is just buckling under way too many cases. They basically have so many cases that they can’t really handle them the way they should be handled. So that’s why they say that they transferred, or requested that the courts transfer, some of the cases that they were handling to this new private agency and this person who’s running it, Tom McDuffie, who said, “I can take these cases.” And this all happened last year in 2022. So Tom McDuffie started this new agency called Cache Integrity Services. And ultimately, all told, this private entity handled 110 cases or so. Some of them were taken from OPA. Some of them were people who would have otherwise paid for a private guardian.

Wesley Early: So what exactly went wrong with McDuffie’s clients?

IS: Basically, what we learned in this reporting is that he just bit off more than he could chew. And he would say that; that’s what he said to me when I spoke with him. And what that means is he had so many cases, and he just didn’t have the staff to handle it. He, at various points, didn’t have any staff at all. And with these guardianship clients, you have to be filing paperwork to get these public benefits that these people rely on. And when you have too many people, you just cannot file that paperwork fast enough. And in some cases, it seemed that no effort was made to reach out to these people.

So these are people for whom, again, a guardian is like their parent. The guardian makes all the decisions when it comes to health and finances. And when that paperwork isn’t filed, those decisions aren’t made. In some cases, clients were left in the hospital for months at a time when they should have been discharged because there was no one to discharge them. There’s no one to sign to approve a discharge.

WE: And I imagine that had a financial toll on some of them, too.

IS: Yeah, there were also cases where, you know, people had certain assets that needed to be sold, or the kinds of financial decisions that are made in the course of someone’s life that weren’t made. And when you push off these important decisions, it does lead to debt in certain cases. It prolongs debt in some situations where people were in debt and that debt needed to be resolved. And it wasn’t because, again, those decisions weren’t being made.

WE: So, is there any legal action related to this issue?

IS: Yeah, we already know there’s a couple of different cases, at least. Last year, the Northern Justice Project, which is a civil rights firm here in Anchorage, filed a lawsuit against the Office of Public Advocacy, basically saying that when OPA requested that all these cases be transferred to Cache Integrity Services, they did so in a way that violated the law, because they didn’t assign clients an attorney and didn’t accurately, or even in any way, explain to them the meaning of their care being transferred from someone who’s an employee of the state to someone who’s a private actor who may charge different fees, or just may act in a different way from what the public guardian might do.

And an Anchorage Superior Court has already determined that, at least in one case, the state is at fault for not appointing an attorney and not following the law. There is also another case where Cache Integrity Services was sued by one of their clients for failing to do what they’re supposed to do. And then several instances where judges have basically said, “We can see that Cache Integrity Services isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, that Tom McDuffie didn’t do what he told the court that he would do,” and then Cache Integrity Services was removed as guardian. So there’s several fronts of legal action, but not really an overall solution to all of these people that the courts appointed MacDuffie to be a guardian in.

WE: We’ve heard reporting about backlogs at the Office of Public Advocacy with some blaming a lack of staffing there. Is that what’s going on here with guardianship, and what’s being done to fix the problem?

IS: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. The Office of Public Advocacy has said, actually, that they don’t think this is a staffing issue, that what they think is this is an issue with high turnover in the public guardian section.

So basically, it takes two years to train a public guardian. It takes a long time to learn all the things that a guardian needs to be able to do, and they can’t keep that staff long enough. I do think that this has to do with the staffing in the Office of Public Advocacy. And it may be a fact that you just cannot recruit the kind of people, the kind of skilled people, that you need to do this job well, for whatever reason. And I don’t know if that’s because the salaries aren’t commensurate with the work that needs to be done, or for other reasons of kind of mismanagement within the Office of Public Advocacy. That’s an open question, but I do think that, sort of like with other issues of social services the state needs to provide, there’s a question here of is the state investing enough resources to make sure that these services are provided effectively?

Full Article & Source:
Alaska’s outsourcing of guardianship led to dysfunction and debt

Tallahassee lawyer sentenced to 14 years for defrauding brain-injured NFL players

by Staff report Tallahassee Democrat

A disbarred Tallahassee attorney was sentenced to 14 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to defrauding clients — former professional football players who had suffered concussions or other brain injuries — of millions of dollars from the settlement of a National Football League class-action lawsuit.

Phillip Timothy Howard, 62, used his law firm and several Tallahassee investment companies under his control to rip off his clients, committing wire fraud and money laundering, federal prosecutors said in a news release. His clients included retired NFL athletes and former football players from Florida State University and Florida A&M University.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who sentenced Howard on Monday at the U.S. Courthouse in Tallahassee, also ordered him to pay more than $12 million in restitution. When he is released, he’ll have to serve three years on what’s called supervised release, a kind of probation, and he must pay over $12 million in restitution.

Nearly 20,000 retired players in 2015 negotiated a settlement with the NFL, with over $1 billion in payable claims, which includes those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and for players who died before April 2015 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, USA TODAY has reported.  

From 2015 to 2018, “Howard fraudulently enticed his clients to invest ... with his investment companies,” the release said, adding that the “former NFL player-investors were provided fraudulent quarterly and year-end investment statements.”

“Despite reassuring investors that their money was secure, (he) never informed them that almost none of the investment funds yielded a return and failed to disclose that the investment funds had been commingled with funds used to operate his law firm and to issue payroll for its staff, pay Howard’s personal mortgages, and otherwise personally enrich (him),” prosecutors said.

Moreover, “Howard sought third-party lenders that would be willing to lend money to Howard’s former NFL clients in advance of their potential NFL concussion settlements as part of the NFL class-action lawsuit … (but) Howard and others fraudulently obtained and attempted to obtain approximately $8 million from (those) lenders.”

Howard was indicted last year by a federal grand jury on racketeering charges. He pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering in August as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney Jason Coody said that the sentence "punishes the defendant's criminal conduct" and serves as a "deterrent to others who would selfishly steal to unlawfully enrich themselves."

"The defendant should have been protecting the interest of his injured clients, rather than swindling their investments," Coody said.

Full Article & Source:
Tallahassee lawyer sentenced to 14 years for defrauding brain-injured NFL players

Man allegedly stole $50,000 from elderly relatives in Dauphin County

Joshua Wood, 21, allegedly took over $50,000 over a period of time from his elderly, care-dependent relatives.

Author: Leah Hall 

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. — A man is facing theft charges after he allegedly stole over $50,000 from his relatives. 

According to the Derry Township Police Department, Joshua Wood, 21, from Cleona was arrested on Nov, 7 by State Police. He is accused of fraudulently taking money from his elderly relatives' bank accounts and using it for himself. 

He allegedly took over $50,000 over a period of time from his elderly, care-dependent relatives, who he was living with. 

Wood was taken to the Dauphin County Judicial Center. He is facing charges of financial exploitation of an older adult or care-dependent person, forgery- alter writing, access device fraud and theft by deception. 

Full Article & Source:
Man allegedly stole $50,000 from elderly relatives in Dauphin County

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

How To Identify, Prevent, and Fight Elder Financial Abuse

Here's how to spot the signs of abuse and take steps to protect yourself and your finances as you age.

by Brynne Conroy (The Penny Hoarder) 

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.

Elder financial abuse happens when someone takes advantage of a senior for their money. It can happen if you’re planning to pass down an estate of millions, or if the only money you have is your monthly Social Security check.

While financial abuse can look like a scam or someone attempting to alter your will, it can also be a nursing home or other medical institution inappropriately increasing your payments.

It can be your caretaker doling you an “allowance” from your own bank account, refusing to allow you to access the rest of the funds.

It could even be a family member who is constantly “borrowing” money with no intention of paying you back.

There are ways to insulate yourself against elder financial abuse, and a few action steps you can take if you ever find yourself the victim.

Here’s how to be proactive in protecting your finances as you age.

Learn Who Typically Inflicts Elder Financial Abuse

Father giving cash to his adult son
RealPeopleStudio /

Financial abuse is typically committed by the people closest to the victim.

With elder financial abuse, it can be and often is the people you have emotional attachments with — like friends and family — but it can also be the people or institutions who are providing your care.

Financial abuse is tricky, as the initial warning signs aren’t always associated with your bank account.

You’ll want to look out for relationships that are controlling or possessive, people who lovebomb you (even if the relationship isn’t romantic), and those who oscillate between the two.

Unfortunately, people are particularly apt to prey on the elderly because in a dark way, they’re looking at your estate. They either want to liquidate it or inherit it with their own interests in mind.

Because con artists prey on the elderly, it’s not just established relationships you’ll want to watch – you’ll also want to be wary of new people that come into your life and want to get too close too quickly.

Protect Yourself From Guardianship

Daughter looking at computer over the shoulder of her elderly mother.
Gines Romero /

Nichelle Nichols. Britney Spears. Michael Oher. These are all people who have been victims of guardianships — or conservatorships, depending on the state. Unfortunately, even in the world of non-celebrities, these examples are the rule rather than exceptions.

“Guardianship takes your rights away,” said Tony Brooks, activist and advocate at Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania.

“Because of your disability, your voice has been given to someone else. Your decisions, your liberty is taken. The guardian could decide on where you live, how you live, or even what you do daily.”

Some people will attempt to put you under guardianship simply because it’s easier to do to an older person. The courts have implicit biases that would lead them to believe you’re less capable, as erroneous as those biases may be.

Because anyone can pursue guardianship at any time in an attempt to commandeer your finances, it might not be a bad idea to have a lawyer’s phone number at the ready.

If you go into the process unprepared and the conservatorship or guardianship is awarded, you’ll likely never get out of it — even with legal representation.

Discuss the Pitfalls of Guardianship With Your Family Members Now

Middle-aged woman taking care of her older mother

Some family members may want to put you under guardianship with genuinely good intentions. This is typically due to a lack of education on the topic.

Here are some potential outcomes your well-meaning family members may not be aware of yet:

  • Establishing guardianship doesn’t mean it can’t be contested. If there’s a shadow of a chance that there’s a sibling or even a distant family member who has nefarious intentions, guardianships often open up a window for them to swoop in. They may try to take away guardianship from the well-meaning family member, and they may be successful.
  • If the guardianship is contested, it’s not uncommon for the courts to remove family members or friends altogether. Then you’d get a court-appointed guardian who might meet with you once per year, if that. They don’t know you, but they’d be making all the decisions about every aspect of your life — or neglecting to make those decisions at all, leaving you in perpetual limbo.
  • Guardianship is often used as a state-sanctioned tool for financial abuse, so it actually makes it harder for you to escape an abusive situation. If your family member really wants to protect you, the best way to insulate you from this type of abuse is to give you more freedom to make your own choices — not less.

Alternatives to Guardianship

Older couple negotiating a home or mortgage deal
fizkes /

There may be practical reasons you want to give someone else the ability to execute some things on your behalf.

Maybe you have an immunodeficiency and don’t yet feel comfortable in indoor public spaces, but you still need to complete in-person financial transactions inside a bank.

Maybe you’re in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and you’ve already discussed with someone you trust how you’d like them to arrange your care.

In these cases, some disability advocates might recommend supported decision making, which is essentially a series of power of attorneys that gives someone the ability to sign documents and make certain, limited decisions on your behalf.

Unlike a guardianship, a power of attorney can be revoked at any time. So if you’re unhappy with how someone is acting on your behalf, you retain the ability to take that power away from them.

What To Know About Supported Decision-Making

Older mom and daughter
Syda Productions /

A power of attorney can be extremely limited in scope. You can get things like a medical power of attorney or a financial power of attorney.

But it can get even more granular than that. It could be for a one-time decision or signature, or it could be specific to only one aspect of your care.

Regardless of how narrow you want the power of attorney to be, this is something you should absolutely draft with your own attorney — not someone who has ever represented the other party.

You also don’t want to search for free templates online. If you pursue this document, it’s too important to not get it right.

For Brooks, even supported decision-making goes too far.

“It’s not great,” he said. “Because still, the other individual has the power to make decisions about your financial needs.”

Familiarize Yourself With Current Financial Scams

Older woman shopping online at a confusing website with tricky sales tactics
Grusho Anna /

Scams are another type of financial abuse you’re likely to come up against. It’s not all just people calling you up for donations to a fake charity like in HBO’s “Telemarketers,” either. (Though that does happen with frequency.)

Currently, the most prolific scams are romance scams, and seniors are particularly vulnerable.

If you’re doing online dating, make sure to be wary of people who live far away, try to get too emotionally close to you too quickly, or ask you to send them money or a gift card for any reason — no matter how sad a story they may tell, or how quickly they “promise” they’ll pay you back.

Odds are, they’re not a real person, and they’re exploiting what they see to be a vulnerable or lonely state due to your age.

They’re repurposing the old Nigerian prince scam into new, emotionally manipulative packaging to match the times.

Build a Strong Social Network

Group of senior citizens /

A lot of times as we age, our social networks get smaller. If this happens to you, know that it’s not your fault. Our society is structured to isolate our elders.

It happens so naturally that it’s something you have to actively combat, or rebuild again after your social network experiences a period of contraction. You can get started by exploring free and cheap activities for seniors.

A strong social network can help insulate you against financial abuse.

When you have people you regularly interact with and trust – especially outside of your caretakers – it makes it harder for other people to take advantage of you.

Seek Services From State Agencies With Your Eyes Wide Open

Senior man talking on mobile phone
wavebreakmedia /

When you encounter financial abuse, there are state resources that can help, but it’s important to go into the process with your eyes wide open.

For example, one of the agencies — Adult Protective Services — not only provides support for financial abuse, but it also can enforce involuntary institutionalizations.

That means that you could theoretically end up in a situation where your abuser convinces the agency to force you into a communal care setting if the agency doesn’t side with you.

“It can go either way,” Brooks said. “You do not know what the outcome will be. Because it’s your word against the other people’s words.”

Key Tips for Reporting Concerns

Upset senior with laptop
fizkes /

Another important point that Brooks brought up was that if a concerned friend or family member reports to a state agency, often that isn’t enough.

“They might say, ‘Yes, we’ll investigate and do a welfare check,'” he explains.

“But when they are doing this welfare check, and the individual is there with their abuser, the abused individual may be afraid to speak up. This then creates the notion that the individual is okay — even though they’re not.”

One way he suggests avoiding this situation is setting up a 1:1 casual discussion between the case worker and the person being abused — no caretakers or anyone else present. This can create a safer environment for the victim to self-advocate.

Speaking up comes with risks you should be aware of, but Brooks says it’s still far and away preferable to staying silent.

“When you’re quiet, nothing is being heard. Nobody knows what is going on. It is best to speak up rather than be a bystander.”

Lean Into State Resources for Elder Financial Abuse

Upset senior using a laptop
LightField Studios /

Here are the governmental agencies and services where you can report elder financial abuse:

An alternative to contacting a state agency is hiring an attorney who specializes in elder law.

Full Article & Source:
How To Identify, Prevent, and Fight Elder Financial Abuse

Monday, November 13, 2023

Opinion | Preventing elder financial abuse

The frightening Nov. 5 front-page article “He had a stroke at a gas station, then lost nearly everything” was truly depressing. In October 2017, the New Yorker published “The Takeover,” a lengthy exposé of the elder-abuse/phony-guardian system in Nevada. It described in sickening detail the shocking takeover of helpless people — some couples, not just individuals — by grifter “guardians” conniving with local “judges.” In Nevada, they got caught and prosecuted. I had hoped that was the of end it.

Obviously, when there are people who need a guardian, the state should be that guardian — for no profit, truly guarding the health and welfare of the helpless individual and truly conserving their assets. That would also involve searching for the individual’s (or couple’s) relatives. A judge should know that the state has search capabilities that a guardian doesn’t.

Bill O’Toole, Arlington

I recently retired as a trust executive in Florida with 48 years’ experience assisting elderly clients with financial and life-care issues. The Nov. 5 article about guardianship described a process that is debilitating and degrading to people and their families when confronted with an austere adjudication of incompetency in court. Some of my most rewarding work was reversing the process to obtain a restoration of capacity — albeit at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

The best technique for avoiding the need for a court-appointed guardian is a revocable living trust. The person creating the trust initially serves as his or her own trustee, with a provision for a successor trustee to serve when needed. The trustee has broad powers to manage and contract for services that protect and care for the individual. There are other techniques, but the revocable living trust is a great starting point.

Chris Gair, Fort Myers, Fla.

Full Article & Source:
Opinion | Preventing elder financial abuse

Disbarred attorney gets 1 year after admitting to theft of $360,000

By Jonathan Phelps Union Leader Staff

A disbarred attorney will spend a year in prison after pleading guilty Thursday afternoon to defrauding his clients of more than $360,000, including money from an estate meant to benefit Honor Flight New England.

David Dunn pleaded guilty to four counts of theft misapplication and was taken into custody immediately after Judge David Anderson sentenced him.

The plea and sentencing came with emotions from both victims and supporters of Dunn. More than a dozen people sat on one side of the gallery, including about a half-dozen wearing “Honor Flight Guardian” T-shirts, and nearly 40 sat behind Dunn showing support.

Anderson addressed both sides in making his decision, saying Dunn’s actions were “a deep breach” of clients’ trust in their attorney.

“This was a serious and systematic failure that happened over a five-year period,” Anderson said.

He said letters of support show that Dunn has “given much” throughout his life.

“The monies have been repaid, which is a significant factor,” Anderson said.

Prosecutor Bryan Townsend asked for a sentence of 5 to 10 years with 2 1/2 years suspended.

“This defendant, as an attorney, was in the ultimate position of trust and he abused that trust over and over and over again over the course of five years,” he said.

As for Honor Flight, the organization that takes veterans on trips to Washington to see the nation’s memorials, Dunn “felt his needs to take precedence over that of disabled veterans,” Townsend said.

Townsend said Dunn has attempted to use his health and overwork as a “get out of jail free” card. The theft took place between March 3, 2016, and June 9, 2021, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Dunn’s attorney, Michael Iacopino, argued for Dunn to be released on probation, especially after having a brain tumor removed in 2012 and suffering from deep depression.

“It is interesting how the state turns the good things in David’s life around and tries to turn them into aggravated factors,” Iacopino said.

Part of the money was used to help a client who indicated he was about to lose his home, Iacopino said. Some of the money went to pay for operating expenses.

“He didn’t do it to go out and buy a fancy car. He didn’t do it to wear fancy suits,” Iacopino said.

From a podium at the front of the courtroom, Dunn turned around and spoke directly to at least one victim and supporters of Honor Flight New England to say he was sorry.

“I do not want to make excuses. I am the one responsible for my actions and no one else is to blame,” he said. “What I did was wrong.”

Dunn, who was disbarred last year, said he planned to replace the funds.

Victim advocate Amy Van Auken read a letter on behalf of a victim identified as “SB,” who had more than $100,000 stolen from a trust fund.

“David took more than money from me. He took my sense of well-being and security,” she wrote. “I know that I am not the only one who has suffered.”

World War II veteran Alphonse Pitcher donated a portion of his estate to Honor Flight, according to court documents. It was Honor Flight’s attorney Neil Nicholson who exposed the fraud.

Joseph Byron, Honor Flight founder and executive director, shared touching stories of sending veterans, mostly seniors, to Washington to visit and reflect at their memorials.

“In our case, you stole money from the estate of a World War II veteran who was touched by his Honor Flight,” Byron said. “He just wanted to do more, so that others could feel what they felt on that day, the day of admiration, the welcome home that he probably had never received.”

Three people spoke on Dunn’s behalf, including his daughter Devon.

Devon Dunn asked Anderson for leniency, calling him an “amazing father, outstanding member of the community and just a really good man.”

Townsend said he has never seen so many letters of support for a defendant, but he needs to be held accountable to send a message to other fiduciaries.

“What the defendant did was severe. What he did was repeated,” Townsend said. “What he did was steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from his clients.”

Full Article & Source:
Disbarred attorney gets 1 year after admitting to theft of $360,000

Two in-home caregivers accused of financial exploiting elderly, dependent clients

by Emily Cherkauskas

Britney Hostrander - Shannon Schenck

LOCK HAVEN, CLINTON CO. (WOLF) — Two women are charged with financially exploiting elderly and care-dependent people in Clinton County.

Police in Clinton County say the two women were charged following unrelated incidents, but "demonstrate a recently increasing trend in Clinton County of in-home caregivers taking advantage" of victims in the area.

28-year-old Britney L. Hostrader of Trout Run was charged for allegedly exploiting a 76-year-old female and an 80-year-old male in Wayne Township.

According to Pine Creek Township Police, Hostrader was an employee of Helping Hands Home Health, an in-home caregiving company. 

Hostrader allegedly used credit cards belonging to her client and her client's husband to make unauthorized purchases of nearly $2,000, including almost $500 that she reportedly paid on outstanding costs and fines for her prior criminal cases out of Mifflin County. She was previously convicted of access device fraud, forgery and theft, police said.

Shannon Schenck, 45, of Lock Haven, was charged for exploiting a 71-year-old female resident of Mill Hall Borough while working for Arcadia Homecare and Staffing, police said.

According to the Mill Hall Borough Police Department, Schenck used the victim's credit card for over $2,000 to pay for her personal utility bills. Schenck has previous drug and DUI convictions, officers said.

Both women have been charged with financial exploitation of older adults and access device fraud.

Full Article & Source:
Two in-home caregivers accused of financial exploiting elderly, dependent clients

Sunday, November 12, 2023

OPINION: ADN coverage didn’t reflect guardianship’s complexity

By James Stinson

I am writing in response to the ADN’s Oct. 27 story regarding the challenges being faced in the guardianship system. Many of the issues raised in the piece were inaccurately explained or lacked a proper factual basis. Much of this is understandable because guardianship and the guardianship system are complex and cannot offer a soundbite explanation.

A guardian is entrusted with making all decisions of consequence on behalf of an individual that a court has deemed “incapacitated.” Appointing a guardian results in the taking away of an individual’s rights to make their most intimate life decisions and financial decisions. Guardianship is the greatest restriction on individual liberty short of incarceration. A guardian is delegated immense power by the court — and that power comes with immense responsibilities.

I want to begin by properly framing the overarching issue: The problems inherent in the guardianship system go beyond any single administration, agency or private provider. It is a multifaceted problem that has snowballed over a decade.

First, the guardianship system is supposed to be a primarily private system. The article failed to provide this basic information. When the Alaska Legislature created the Office of the Public Guardian in the early 1980s, it intended that it would remain a small advisory entity that would lend its expertise to private guardianship providers. The Public Guardian actually has a legal duty to continue to find a private guardian. Alaska Statute 13.26.720 states: “The public guardian, when appointed as guardian or conservator, shall endeavor, for as long as practical, to find a suitable private guardian or conservator for the public guardian’s ward or protected person.”

Second, the Public Guardian, like any other appointed guardian or conservator, has no unilateral power to transfer a client to a new guardian or conservator. It all requires a court process with full court oversight and review, because only a Superior Court judge can appoint, substitute or dismiss a guardian or conservator, whether it is the Public Guardian or a professional or even a family member.

When making those decisions, the law requires the judge to consider an appointment to the Public Guardian as the last resort. Family members, friends and private professionals are required to be given priority and, if suitable, appointed before the Public Guardian should even be considered.

Third, we are concerned that the story didn’t focus on and ask the real questions plaguing guardianship in Alaska. Have the statutes been followed properly over the last decade? Is there an over-appointment problem of guardianships and conservatorships that has led to our state’s current crisis?

While it is true there are people in need of a guardian or conservator, Alaskans should be equally concerned about whether this process is being overused, even if it is being done so with the intent to protect. If you are under full guardianship, you have no legal authority to sign a cellphone contract, set your own medical appointments or even decide where you want to live. The basic life decisions most of us take for granted as adults in our country are no longer yours to make.

Guardianship ethics require a guardian to work with a protected person to maximize their autonomy and independence. Guardians are supposed to be able to focus on what the person can do, not what they can’t. This has simply not been occurring at the Public Guardian due to the size of the caseloads. Public guardians have been forced to move from emergency to emergency with barely enough time to address basic needs, and we believe as a public agency our clients deserve the guardianship services the law and our ethics require. To do that, public guardians must have a caseload that allows them to address the clients as people they have committed to help.

Overwhelming the Public Guardian means that almost 1,600 people, whom the court have declared need our protection, will not get the protection they deserve.

Fourth, it is important to recognize that there are inherent barriers to a guardian getting what their client needs. From the obstacles of not being able to get an accurate Social Security number, a client not being Medicaid eligible due to owning property that needs to be sold, to the frustrations with financial institutions not accepting legal orders and everything in between. The story fails to convey that many of the challenges experienced by Cache Integrity and complaints lodged are about things wholly outside of the guardian’s control. The Office of Public Advocacy and private guardians deal with the same challenges on a daily basis.

From an outside perspective, someone simply sees that a client did not receive benefits and debt is accumulating. But it is the specific financial situation of each client that drives what can be accomplished. This is not to say that Cache Integrity didn’t drop the ball in certain cases. But one should be cautious about making that conclusion without knowing the specific facts of a case.

Fifth, Beth Goldstein’s response — “Tom, this is exciting” — was to the prospect of a nonprofit entering the field to help Alaskans who need a guardian.

The story failed to acknowledge that Cache Integrity actually agreed to waive its opening fees for many of the 45 cases involved. Thus, the $1,000 fee didn’t even apply to those cases. It also failed to acknowledge that the Public Guardian is required to charge those equivalent fees under the law.

This information made it appear as though Goldstein was taking delight in people being charged $1,000. This is simply not true. It was disappointing to see such a baseless inference being made.

One question that could have been asked is why the court kept appointing clients to Cache Integrity until its caseload exceeded 100. Another is why Tom McDuffie accepted those appointments when he didn’t have to. The simplest answer is probably the most likely: Everyone was doing the best they could to provide services to vulnerable Alaskans despite a severe lack of certified public guardians in the state. The story certainly highlighted why overloading a guardian is counterproductive.

Finally, the story didn’t properly acknowledge the good news on the horizon. The administration in cooperation with the legislature has given OPA six additional public guardian positions, as well as two eligibility technician positions. Once certified, these positions will ensure OPA is sufficiently staffed and there will be a buffer in place when a resignation occurs. It took a great deal of effort to be able to accept cases on the Kenai Peninsula despite recently losing two certified public guardians. By January, OPA should be able to accept a limited number of guardianship appointments in most jurisdictions. The moratorium is accomplishing what it intended even sooner than expected.

Guardianship is complex, difficult and specialized. It is challenging to distill the issues within the guardianship system into a digestible narrative. However, it should be emphasized that public guardians are dedicated public servants who want nothing more than to help people. If the Public Guardian collapses, there will be 1,600 people without guardians. That is what Beth Goldstein and I are working to prevent every day.

James E. Stinson is the director of the Office of Public Advocacy. 

Full Article & Source:
OPINION: ADN coverage didn’t reflect guardianship’s complexity

‘A Playground for Predators’: Diane Dimond on The Abuses of Guardianship

by Amy Biancolli 

Our guest today is Diane Dimond, a longtime, award-winning investigative journalist specializing in crime and justice issues. As a freelance journalist, syndicated columnist, and former television correspondent, her reporting and commentary have been featured in newspapers, magazines, and TV news outlets across the country.

She’s also the author of several books, including Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which she wrote after years of groundbreaking reporting on the topic; and her most recent, We’re Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong, just published by Brandeis University Press.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Biancolli: Diane Dimond, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

Diane Dimond: Thank you for having me, Amy. I appreciate your time.

Biancolli: Your book has so many stories, absolute horror storiesone after another, the stories of human anguish. But before we delve deeply into that, if you could, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with it: What is guardianship? In some states it’s called conservatorship.

Dimond: Well, that’s really where you have to start, because it’s such a secretive court system that most of America doesn’t know what the heck it is. Guardianship is a legalized system whereby states help with their citizens who need help, those who need protection because of various maladies, disabilities, physical or mental. They’re elderly, they have no family to take care of them, and they’re having memory issues. It’s a court system that we really need in this country to help the citizens who cannot help themselves.

After eight years of investigating cases and writing about them in my syndicated column and magazine long-form articles, I discovered that the system has been infiltrated by predators, financial predators who have simply, quite simply, bastardized the entire system. It’s not therein many instancesto protect people. It’s there ready, willing and able to victimize people, and that’s what caught my attention. Thank you for saying there’s so many stories in this book, because I wanted to show the various ways that guardianship has morphed into this industry. Really, in my mind I like to call it a racket. It’s almost like organized crime in some instances.

Biancolli: That really comes through in your bookthe abuse, the fact that this is state-sanctioned, literally, and state run. And it’s all behind closed doors. Most people don’t know what’s going on. There’s the level of horror in terms of what people have to go through, and then that horror seems even more extreme because it’s done in secret.

Dimond: Right, and it’s allowed because a judge has decreed that someone is “incapacitated.” Let me just quickly tell you how it all started. Anyone, and I mean anyone, from your landlord, to your next door neighbor, to your angry business partner, to your former lover can go to a lawyer and say, “Hey, I want some of that person’s money or property, what can I do?”

The lawyer will inevitably say, “Oh, guardianship. This is a panacea. Guardianship.” It might even be a family member, an adult child of an elderly person, for example, who can’t get along with their brothers and sisters about what to do with mom or dad. The lawyer will say, well, let’s write up a petition to the court and I’ll just give it to the judge and he or she will rubber stamp it. That’s literally what happens.

The judges that hear these cases, they don’t have time to vet what’s in this petition, and many times what’s in these petitions are just downright lies. Having gotten a petition from an officer of the court, a familiar lawyer in front of them, the judge says, okay, guardianship. It’s now in effect. Once someone is in the guardianship system, even if it’s a temporary guardianship, it’s almost impossible to get out of guardianship.

Amy Biancolli: That’s the other thing that I think most people are unaware of. The idealized version of guardianship is to help someone who is in fact either temporarily or permanently incapacitated by something, whether it’s brain trauma, perhaps it’s some type of disability, perhaps it’s Alzheimer’s.

Dimond: Perhaps they just had a stroke, and they’re going to recover.

Biancolli: They’re going to recover and usually, or frequently, it’s a loving family member who steps in and takes care, and is in charge of their finances. And you do, early on, describe some of those loving family members who actually perform their jobs in a caring and responsible fashion. But the book is looking at the flip side of that, the people who aren’t caring—the professional guardians primarily, but also some family members who abuse this profound power to sap resources and essentially take over someone’s life and finances. How common is this?
Dimond: Amy, I wish I could answer that definitively. Let me throw out some figures for you. First of all, nobody keeps track of guardianships in the United States. Nobody. There is no entity that says, okay there are 4,000 in Arizona and there are 11,000 in Illinois. Nobody knows. Then, how often does an abusive guardianship, a financially devastating guardianship, happen? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you: Over eight years I collected so many, I could have written a book that was twice as long as this book. I feel guilty that there were many cases I didn’t even mention in the book.

But here are some stats for you. Every year in this country, state courts hear guardianship cases. The targeted person is declared an incapacitated ward of the court. They are stripped of their civil rights. In most states, the vast majority of states, they can’t even hire a lawyer to defend themselves because they’re incapacitated. These state courts then confiscate the money, property, investments of all the wards and put it in the name of the guardian.

Every year in this country, state courts confiscate $50 billion worth of estates. So is it any wonder that financial predators have thought, “Hey, I got to get in on this, this is great”? Because only three states actually require a guardian to be licensedCalifornia, Alaska, and Nevada. Many of them don’t even require them to get any sort of certification. It’s just a playground for predators. That is what it’s become.

Guardianships last an average of six years. If it’s $50 billion every year that the state courts are confiscating, that’s a pot of money of $300 billion just sitting there. Now, as you say, there are some great guardians, there are some great conservators and lawyers working in this field, and some of the guardianships work out just fine, especially if a family member is appointed as the guardian. But more and more, I discovered when a case comes before a judge, a judge decides, “Well, if it’s in court the family must be dysfunctional, so I’m not going to appoint you, brother Joe, as the guardian. I’m going to appoint a for-profit professional guardian.” They can charge you up to 600 bucks an hour, and hire any amount of other helpers to come on to service the ward. You can see how an estate gets drained pretty quickly.

Biancolli: As you point out, that $600 an hour can be applied to something like answering emails, something really mundane and small. I would at some point like to hear you describe a case, a specific case. One that really popped out to me is the story of Carl, the young man with disabilities. There are so many others that just broke my heart. But just to emphasize before you get into that: when someone becomes a ward of the state, they essentially lose their right to vote, they lose their right to spend their own money. They lose their right—as many of us learned from the Free Britney Movement and her whole guardianship struggle—to get married, lose the right to make all these basic human decisions, because they all have to be made by the guardian or the conservator. Someone who’s a ward is stripped of their civil rights, their basic human rights.
Again, there’s just so many stories. But is there one that to you typifies what happens, or illustrates it in a way that people will just hear and connect?

Dimond: You’re asking me to choose my children, here.

Biancolli: I realize. I mentioned Carl, this young man with developmental disabilities who was essentially informally adopted by a really loving family, and he wound up with this outside guardian. It was just an unbelievable nightmare. Here, he had this entire loving family advocating for him. But as you described, whoever is trying to become somebody’s guardian for the right reasons, they wind up being vilified by the court—and so the judge assigned somebody else. 

Dimond: Right. Carl DeBrodie was born to an addicted mother who neglected him, at the very least. The school bus driver, a wonderful woman, sort of adopted him. He was profoundly disabled, both physically and intellectually. She and her husband took in Carl. They just loved Carl, and Carl came to live with them. His mom didn’t really care that that happened, but they loved him so much. The whole big family did. But somewhere along the line, they thought, well, we should get this legalized.

They went to court to become his guardians. The judge said no. He assigned an outside guardian. That guardian—a stranger, complete strangerhad no idea what the loving couple was about or Carl’s needs, wants, or woes. They took him out of that home and put him in a group home. To make a long story short, that group home was run by a couple of criminals. I can say that because they are in prison. They made a slave out of Carl. They would take him home to their house, make him sleep in a damp basement, do the chores. Then they brought another person home from the group home, another disabled man, and had them fight in the basement for their own amusement.

In the end, Carl was killed. He was murdered, frankly. They stuffed him into a can of cement and put him in a storage locker only to be found months and months and months later. Nobody really knows the date of death of Carl DeBrodie. That’s one case.

There’s another case in Staten Island, New York. A young man, damaged at birth. He was deprived of oxygen and he developed a mild case of cerebral palsy. He walked a little differently, and he spoke a little differently, and his parents won about two million dollars in a malpractice suit from the hospital. As an infant, the court named a guardian for him. It’s the Shirley Temple Law that you don’t want the parents to spend all the money, so the money is protected till he’s 18 years old. His name is Michael Liguori.

At 18, Michael now wants his money. He’s graduated from high school with good grades. He wants to go to college. He has a problem with his hand and he wants to get surgery. The guardian says, no, no, no, no. Goes back to the judge and says, your honor, look at him. He’s intellectually disabled. Look at it. He can’t even walk right. The judge allowed that guardianship to go on for six more years. Six more years of the guardian and the people the guardian hired taking chunks of Michael Laguori’s money.

Michael called me last Christmas and said, “Diane, it’s over. I’m finally free.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “I didn’t want tothey hung on for a long timebut the guardian was insisting that I pay him $58,000 more, so I went ahead and paid him. And now I’m free.” I spoke to him about a week ago and I said, “Michael, do you know how much money is left?” He said, “No, I really don’t.” Because the guardian who was supposed to file this annual audit saying where all of Michael’s money has gone, he never filed it. He never filed an audit with the court, which is mandated by law. 

What happened to that guardian? Nothing.

This is the problem, Amy. I find these unscrupulous guardians all over the place, and when they get caught, mostly they get a slap on the wrist. Some of them now are actually being convicted, which is heartening. But it just breaks your heart. All of these stories, I can go on and on. 

Biancolli: I know you could go on and on, because there are so many stories like that in the book. Each time I read one, well, why didn’t law enforcement do something about this? I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a scholar when it comes to these things, but good lord, it’s criminal. On a human level, it’s just so deeply wrong. It’s appalling that there are so few cases where someone like Michael has some kind of a happy ending, even though he had to pay for it. That’s just astonishing. But to him it’s a victory. To him it’s a victory because it’s over.

Dimond: Now he finally can make his own decisions. Like you say, a ward cannot vote. They can’t decide where they live. They can’t write a check. They can’t have a baby. They can’t get married. They can’t write a contract. People on death row have more rights than a ward of the court. It’s stunning to me how powerful guardians are.

If you go to court and you think you’re going to be the guardian of your elderly mother, and the court appoints an outside professional guardianand you don’t like what that guardian’s doing to your parent, and you complain to the court? That guardian can ban you from seeing your loved one. Permanently ban you. They can go back to court and they can say, “Your Honor, all of the liquid money is gone. I’ve gone through the checking account money and the savings account money. So now I need to sell the ward’s house and everything in it so that I have enough money to take care of them for the rest of their life.”

No matter that there is a last will and testament, a power of attorney, an estate plan, a trust, an irrevocable trustin effect, judges nationwide nullify those legal documents and say, “Okay, go ahead, sell the house.” Now, that house maybe was bequeathed to the adult daughter or the adult sonor the heirlooms inside it, worth a lot of money. Suddenly they sort of disappear in the sale, and nobody knows where those things went. This is how powerful guardians are.

Some of them, they’re financial predators, but some of them are also just control freaks. They just get off on the control of it. I’ll give you a quick example. In Las Vegas, Nevada, there was a guardian named April Parks, and she was convicted. She’s doing 16 to 40 years in prison for stealing from her wards in Nevada. After she went to prison, her storage locker came up for auction. The man who bought it opened the door thinking, hey, what kind of treasure will I find here? What he found instead were the cremainsthe cemetery urnsof 27 of April Parks’s wards. But in some instances, she hadn’t even told the family that the person had died. She made no attempt to get the cremains in a respectful manner to the family. She just shoved them in a storage locker and closed the door. You know, why? Why did she do that? Because she could. Nobody stopped her. The judge intervened.

I keep asking myself as I recall all these stories, where was the judge in all this? Why doesn’t the judge listen to the family? Well, because in the very beginning, the family was declared to be dysfunctional or greedyafter the inheritance before the person even diesand so in the eyes of these judges, the families are tainted from the beginning. There’s no way they can redeem themselves. These are called equity courts. This isn’t like a criminal court or a civil court. In equity courts, there’s no due process guaranteed. There are hearings but there’s no trial. At the hearings the judge will mostly just listen to the guardian’s medical person who says, “Oh yeah, yeah, the person’s incapacitated.”

They’ll listen to the court visitor, the same one who always works with the guardian. “Oh, yes, I went to the home and it was a mess and this person needs protection.” It’s the same testimony in all these casesand all these people work together to enslave people, frankly. There are processes that are far less restrictive than strict guardianship that judges could consider, but they don’t because it’s just easier to say, “Oh, petition for guardianship? Okay, guardianship’s on.”

Biancolli: Here at Mad In America, the readers and listeners are accustomed to stories of people who aren’t heard for whatever reason, because they’ve been slapped with a label. You give some examples in your book—for instance, a young woman who’d been diagnosed with depression, borderline, ADHD, and she was guardianized. She was making an argument for freedom from guardianship because she enrolled in college and she has a decent GPA. She’s obviously functioning. But because she’s been labeled—she has been deemed by somebody in the courts as incapacitated, however they might define it—she’s stuck. 
Once we label someone as somehow problematic, diagnosed, whatever it is, then we stop listening to them and we stop taking them seriously—and we start stripping their human rights.

Dimond: Now, think about what you just said. Is that the society we want to be? Is that what we want to do to people who have temporary issues? Mental or physical issues? We take them and we warehouse them away somewhere with a minder that can keep them away from everyone else—and oftentimes, I discovered, over-medicate them to ensure compliance. Is that the country we want to be in? 

Let me quickly tell you about a woman down south: 38 years old, single woman, successful, bought herself a condo. She had a car, she had money. You see, guardianship abuse happens with people with money. Keep that in mind.

While she was in a coma she was guardianized, and when she woke up she found herself in a group home, where she recovered. But she’s in guardianship. She’s “labeled,” as you say, incapacitated, and she couldn’t convince the judge, “Hey, I’m okay now.” That group home owner put her to work. She became the housekeeper, the grocery shopper. She was on the computer keeping the dosage of medications going to all the other residents. She really became enslaved. It took her years to get out of that guardianship because the judge just wouldn’t hear her, couldn’t imagine that somebody could get better from a traumatic brain injury. Give me a break. What century are we living in?

Biancolli: Yet here she was, doing all this work. I’m reminded of the story of Britney Spears, who was locked into this guardianship while she was raking in millions. How incapacitated was she? Of course in her case, I think she was stuck in guardianship for 14 years before she finally got free of it. For a lot of people, that was the a-ha moment when they understood or saw, for the first time, an example of the problems with guardianship. You do talk about her quite a bit at the beginning as an embodiment in pop culture of what’s wrong with it.

Dimond: I went back and really did some investigative work on that, and I truly believe that her guardianshipconservatorship, they call it in Californiawas established illegally. The judge in the case pulled some strings and appointed her favorite guardian, Sam Ingham, to be Britney’s co-guardian with her father. Sam Ingham made $10,000 a week for almost 14 years off Britney Spears, while she’s dancing and singing in Las Vegas and being a judge on the TV talent show and, as you say, raking in millions of dollars. There’s a California law, I discovered, that anyone who is a ward of the court who makes money should be given that money. But she never got it. I mean, she had a little allowance, but yes, that whole case really woke up America. But still, because it’s such a secretive system, the courtroom doors are closed, the case files are often sealed, there’s frequent gag orders issued. 

It’s all under the guise of HIPAA protection. There’s this federal law that protects people’s medical information, and so that’s a really convenient cloak used to keep everything secret, to keep the rest of us, really, in the dark. That’s why I wrote this book, because I got those case files and I talked to people who didn’t care about the gag order. They just wanted to tell their story so badly. And it was a lot of work, but it was a real passion project for me.

Biancolli: How many years did you spend researching this book?

Dimond: Well, since 2015, so about eight years. I first heard of the case in my home state where I grew up, New Mexico, but I couldn’t report on it because I couldn’t get the court documents. A dear friend’s father had been guardianized, and I just had to tell her, “I’m sorry, I believe what you’re saying, but I can’t confirm it. As a journalist, I have to have documents or other people confirming what you’re saying.” And I couldn’t crack it. 

Then a few months later, coincidentally, a private investigator I work with told me about a case in Pennsylvania. [The cases in] New Mexico and Pennsylvania were both elderly people, both held under guardianships that they did not want, that siphoned off their multimillion-dollar estates.

I began to write about the case in Pennsylvania, a woman named Betty Winstanley, just a fascinating woman. She was so interesting to talk to, and I actually went to a court hearing with her. When it was discovered I was there, I got tossed out of the courtroom, but I wrote about her in my syndicated column. I began to write about the exorbitant amount of money her guardian was charging, because I had the spreadsheet that the guardian had sent to the court. Don’t ask me how I got that, but I got that. I started to write about Betty Winstanley’s case, and Amy, I cannot tell you how many dozens and dozens of people contacted me from states across the country saying, “Me, too. Please tell my mother’s story, my brother’s story, my sister’s story, my dad’s story.” I realized, this is a nationwide problem. Nobody’s writing about this. Nobody’s talking about it.

But I’ll tell you, I found that there are some two million people in guardianship right now. Now, we heard about Britney Spears, but there are two million others living under guardianship now. Some of them, the situations might be just righta family member who knows what the ward wants out of life and what their goals were. If they’re the guardian, that’s great. But that’s not what this book is about. This book is about all the ones that ran off the rails and enriched predators working within the system.

Biancolli: “Enriched” is the word, too, because one of the stories you tell concerns Marian Kornicki, whose story is familiar to people who read Mad In America. In fact, in your book you refer to her piece from January of last year, “Guardianship Destroyed My Family,” and she describes this nightmare situation. At one point she uses an analogy, a metaphor, that I think someone else used as well: Guardianship was used to “turn us into human ATM machines.” Whoever happens to be guardian or conservator of someone with wealth, they can basically do whatever they want with that person’s money. 
One other piece of it that I want to ask you about is the way wills are completely discounted. Someone might have expressed their desires. They might have said, “Yes, I would like to live in this little house and be near family, and then I want to leave my money to X, Y, and Z.” That might all be documented, but that can be discounted.

Dimond: And nullified by guardianship judges, yes. In Marian’s case, her sister, Terri, was stealing money from her parents. I mean, the district attorney came in and charged her sister with a crime, and still, the judge in the case said, “Well, I’m going to make both you sisters the guardians.” Well, why in the world would a judge do that? I’ll tell you why: Because the players in this abusive part of the system love conflict. They love it when a family member fights back, because that means there’s more court hearings. The guardian can charge more hourly fees, and then the guardian/conservator and the lawyers involved all have to write reports. That accumulates more fees. Who pays for everything? The ward of the court. If you fight back, you’re depleting your loved one’s money, but you’re also depleting, probably, your own inheritance. They’re using your potential inheritance against you to fight you. You see the Catch-22? 

It’s a system that is so stacked against families and wards in many instances. I found people who were not incapacitated at all, like Betty Winstanley in Pennsylvania, yet they were guardianized. She had a hearing problem, and so she’s [deemed] incapacitated. Her oldest son guardianized her in Pennsylvania and her $2 million estate. She wanted to move down to Maryland and be with her other two children, who, frankly were the only ones who ever came to visit her.

She told me actually on the phone, “My older son, he always had problems. He always fought with his siblings, and I think this is just his way of getting back at me, making me stay in Pennsylvania.” Did you think the Pennsylvania judge in that case was going to let a $2 million estate go away to another state? No, he didn’t. 

She died alone in a place where she didn’t want to be during COVID.

Biancolli: Throughout your book you tell stories like that. You also talk about the struggles and the plight of the elderly, and some of them are incapacitated or struggling with dementia. But at the same time, they should still have human rights. They should still have basic civil rights. They should still be treated as human beings, right? For the elderly, specifically, in your book you note an older man with Alzheimer’s who was found living in his guardian’s dirty basement, wearing a diaper. The guardian had stolen more than $640,000 from this man. I know that’s an extreme and horrific case, but there are also situations in nursing homes where people are drugged off their heads—where chemical restraint is so common.
You also describe in your book several cases of people who were taken from their homes and forced into facilities when they had family members who wanted to take them in. I mean, it should seem so obvious. We should be treating our elders better. Isn’t that supposedly something that we value? But apparently not. Apparently, once somebody has the slightest incompetency or incapacitation—some kind of disability, whether temporary or permanent, or they’re labeled with a psychiatric disorder—it’s, “Forget it, you don’t have any more rights.” Is that extreme, or is that pretty much the case?

Dimond: No, you said it very well. I wish I could have quoted you in the book.

My husband was one of my proofreaders. He said, “You know, every page makes me mad or sad. I can’t decide which.” 

But I do try to meld in: how does the system work? Who are the players you’re going to find in it? How do these guardians get into league with so many other people within the system, and they all know what’s happening? But nobody will tell on anybody else, because if you tell about the misbehavior going on, then you lose your place at the trough. Many guardians are becoming real estate agents now, so that when they go to the court and say, “Your Honor, I’m out of money, I’ve got to sell this house,” they get a commission off of selling the house.

There’s a judge in Polk County, Florida, right now who’s under the microscope, because he has bought up the homes of wards at very low prices and then he resells them for a big profitand this has happened with multiple homes. If there are antiques in your house, a guardian knows an antique dealer who’s going to come in and buy the lot for a low price, and then sell it at a higher price and split it with the guardian. Cars, automobiles, collectibles, coin collections: all of a sudden they’re just gone, and the family can’t find them, and the guardian says, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened, Your Honor.”

There’s a woman named Rebecca Fierle in Florida. By the way, Florida is the worst possible state for abusive guardianships. Please, if you’re elderly, if you’ve got money, don’t retire there. I’m sure their chamber of commerce will be mad at me for saying that. But Rebecca Fierle was a guardian in Florida. She had more than 400 wards spread across several Florida counties. Now, one person cannot possibly serve 400 wards, I mean, you just can’t. But judges kept giving her more and more and more wards. That meant that immediately she got her name on everybody’s property, money, investments, homes.

She then proceeded, with no one’s knowledge, to put do-not-resuscitate orders on all of her wards. One particular man who had a little bit of moneynot a lot, but he was a real problem for her, because he had a swallowing difficulty and often wound up in the hospital having to have a feeding tube. In addition to his DNR, she put a feeding tube cap order, and so the next time he had his swallowing problem and was about to asphyxiate himself, the hospital staff could only stand by and watch Steven Stryker die, because the guardian had put these orders on his medical chart. She had been beseeched by the doctors, “Please take that cap DNR off, because this guy’s going to—.” No, no, she said, “It’s all about quality of life, not quantity of life.” And so Steven Stryker died.

The State of Florida went back, did a big study and found all these DNRs on all these wards, and all this money she had gotten under the table from hospitals and whatnot. When it came to the court session, she was charged with dozens and dozens of crimes in the beginning. But by the time the trial came around, it was one count of neglect of an elderly person. And this is not in the book, because the sentence came too late: four months probation.

Biancolli: Four months probation.

Dimond: Yes. Rebecca Fierle has now registered herself as a life coach in the State of Florida. It would be my recommendation, if you need a life coach, you might not want to choose Rebecca Fierle.

Biancolli: Wow. What other recommendations do you have for people? What other advice do you have to people listening in terms of avoiding a guardianship for themselves or family members? What would you say to people?

Dimond: I’ve got a whole section in the book, and I’ll just be brief. First of all, if your family cannot come to an agreement about what to do with your vulnerable loved one, please don’t go to a lawyer first. Again, I’m sure the legal community doesn’t want me to say thatbut go to family mediation first. 

It’s going to cost you a lot less, and it really is very effective when a mediator looks at all the adult children and says, “Listen, this is what’s going to happen if you start to fight amongst yourselves.” They will explain what happens in guardianship, and they will explain that the person you hurt the most is your vulnerable loved one you are trying to protect. 

If you are caught up in guardianship, try tofrom the very beginning if you can, because often times these petitions just get approved without any family being in the courtroom or even the ward begin in the courtroom—engage a lawyer to suggest to the judge that they try something called Supported Decision-Making. This is a volunteer program where family, friends, even staff of the court in some states, will go in and just assist the person. They need help with their checkbook, or they need help with transportation, or they need help taking their medication every day.

It is an option, but in most states judges don’t even consider it, even when many state laws say there the judge may consider Supported Decision-Making. Well, that means they don’t have to. And they don’t.

Another thing is if you have children that are squabbling amongst themselves, and you have money, and you want to make sure you don’t get put into guardianshipeverybody’s got a cellphone now, right? Set it up on your dining room table and speak to what your desires are. Do you want a guardianship, and who would you want to be the guardian? Do you want to stay in your home with healthcare aides coming in, and your money to be used for that instead of guardianship? Put it on videotape, because that’s a powerful piece of evidence to show to a judge.

May I recommend that at the very end of thatif you canhave a big family meeting while you videotape yourself. Tell your loved ones if they start fighting over this, and anyone tries to put you in guardianship, they are automatically disinherited. They don’t get any inheritance at all. Funny how that stops people from going after guardianship!

Biancolli: A motivator. What needs to change? I know that’s another massive question, and you spend a lot of time answering that in the book. Should guardianship be federally run? Do we need a national database to keep track of all of it? Should there be a national registry of guardians, a certification system nationally? You mentioned Supported Decision-Making as a good approach, but what needs to happen?

Dimond: Yes, yes, yes, and yes to everything you just said. I think guardians should be licensed by the state, and then if you do something wrong, you lose your license; you can’t practice in that arena anymore. I think all states need to have certification levels for guardians. But here is something we haven’t talked about, and I think really needs to happen: When a guardian is found doing something wrong like we have talked about here, and I talk about in the book, they need to be punished

There is a woman named Susan Harris in New Mexico who stole $11 million from her wardsshe is doing 47 years in prison, by the way. They need to be punished, because that sends a signal to other bad actors. 

In addition, when guardians tell loved ones, “I’m sorry, you upset the ward, so you can’t visit anymore.” You go to the local police department and you say, “Hey, I can’t get in to see my elderly mother anymore, or my disabled brother. The guardian won’t let me.” You know what the law enforcement says? They say, “Sorry, there’s a judge’s rule. That there is a civil order, and we only deal in criminal matters.” You go to the district attorney. You go to the attorney general’s office. They all are hands off if a judge has ruled. They don’t want to go up against a sitting judge’s order. I think law enforcement needs to start paying attention to the fact that, no matter if there is a civil order in effect, if someone is being held against their will, that’s kidnapping. If someone’s money is disappearing, that’s either extortion or fraud or embezzlement. There are all sorts of laws that law enforcement should be looking into, and they just don’t. I think that needs to change as well.

Basically, we all need to start educating ourselves on guardianship, because even if you have a small military pension coming in every month, or you are disabled, totally disabled, you get $10,000 a month to care for you. Well, a guardian can step in and put you in a group home, an unsavory group home that costs $3,000 a month. What happens to the rest of that 10 grand? 

Read my book, frankly, or otherwise get yourself educated on my website There is a whole section called Guardianship Central. There’s lots of resources there. There’s a Frequently Asked Questions section, and there’s a glossary, because when you get embroiled in this system, there are all these names and phrases and positions of people within the system that come at you. “Whoa, what does all this mean?” I answer those questions for you on the website.

Biancolli: One more thing I’d like to just go back to—what should be foundational, which is civil rights protections of people, especially those most at risk. The WHO has identified forced treatment as a basic human rights issue. Why isn’t it more obvious? Why isn’t it foundational that we should be advocating for the rights of people who most need that advocacy? It should be foundational that people should have civil rights, but so frequently their civil rights are stripped from them. Why does this happen? Is this a classic case of “money is the root of all evil” or “power corrupts—absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is that it in a nutshell?

Dimond: Yes, yes, and yes, you got it right on the head. There’s a lot of advocacy groups trying to reform guardianship right now. One of the major ones is CEAR, which you can find on Facebook, run by Terri and Rick Black, warriors in the fight. They’ve counseled more than 5,000 families about this. Tom Coleman at the Spectrum Institute fights for civil rights and disabled people. Again, what kind of country are we that we take the supposed or actually most vulnerable people and hold them incommunicado, strip them of their rights, put them in places where they don’t want to be, give them no voice of their own? I just don’t understand it, except to say nothing changes because of the lobbyists, the lawyers, the guardians, the guardian ad litems, the nursing homes, the hospital lobbyists.

When they have an elderly patient or a disabled patient in the hospital and their insurance is running out, they call their favorite guardian and say, “Hey, I got another one for you.”

Again, many guardianships work well. That’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about the $15 billion every year that’s up for grabs, that bad actors with dollar signs in their eyes zoom in on, and the factitious guardianships they create. How about this one: there is a mechanic in Texas who was not getting paid by a wealthy man to work on his classic cars. The elderly man was having some memory issues, so the mechanic went to a lawyer in Texas and he said, “What can I do to get this guy to pay me?” The lawyer said, “Well, why don’t you guardianize him?” It worked. Suddenly this car mechanic in Texas was in charge of this multimillionaire’s entire estate. He got his $30,000-$40,000 he was owed, but he was in charge of the man’s entire wealth. It took that family a couple of years and a lot of money to get that man out of that guardianship.

But anyway, why do we do it? Because nobody stops it. The United States Congress has been having heartbreaking hearings on this since the 1980s. What comes of it? Nothing. They say, “It’s a states issue, we can’t do anything.” Well I call BS on that, Amy, because the Department of Justice goes into police departments in states when they think there have been civil rights violations, and they put those departments under watch. And they give them rules and regulations that they have to follow to keep civil rights safe. Well, why can’t they do it with guardianship? The answer is they can if they wanted to, but they don’t.

Biancolli: This has been an extraordinary conversation full of really sobering truths. Our guest today was Investigative Journalist Diane Dimond, author of the new book We’re Here to Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong. For more on her work, see Diane, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us. This has just been, as I said, an extraordinary conversation.

Dimond: Amy, thanks so much for being interested in this topic, because when I bring it up to some people, they say, “I don’t know, that sounds boring.” But it isn’t when you really delve into it.

Biancolli: It’s the opposite of boring. It’s so compelling, and it’s absolutely imperative that word gets out there that this is going on. So again, thank you.

Dimond: Thank you.

‘A Playground for Predators’: Diane Dimond on The Abuses of Guardianship