Public guardian under fire for isolating elderly

(KGO)
November 1, 2012 7:53:34 PM PDT
The Santa Clara County Public Guardian's Office is facing criticism. Some families say the county is isolating their elderly loved ones -- unnecessarily taking control of their entire lives, right down to who can visit.

The ABC7 News I-Team doesn't often get the police called on it for a story. It happens, but it was unexpected in this case. All the I-Team did was ask to see a couple of ladies whose families say are being isolated by Santa Clara County.

"I need my family and they took that away from me," 82-year-old Gisela Riordan says in a recording. "You know, what else can they take?"

Gisela Riordan: "I can't do anything in here."
Gisela's son Marcus Riordan: "I know, I know."
Gisela Riordan: "Because this is like a prison."
Marcus Riordan: "It's like a prison?"

Gisela suffers from dementia and her son, Marcus, made the recording during one of only three visits he's been allowed with his mother in more than two years.

"They hijacked my mother," Marcus said.

The Santa Clara County Public Guardian's Office "conserved" Gisela -- took over her personal and medical decisions -- in 2010, after she visited hospitals 19 times in a single year. A court investigator determined her family, including her son, could not care for her.

"Maybe there were family members involved with the person but they weren't caring for that person by the appearance," Santa Clara County Director of Social Services Lee Pullen said.

Pullen would not speak specifically about Gisela's case, but said the public guardian does not conserve a person without cause.

"It would have to be constellation of situations," Pullen said. "Was there money that was available to provide the elderly person's care that she needed and it wasn't being provided?"

Marcus was living with his mother at the time the county took over. He says he loves her, and was doing the best he can.

"My mom wants to come home. We have a home. She has food, clothing, shelter, I can take care of her, I was taking good care of her," he said.

But, the Public Guardian's Office kicked out Marcus and sold the house to pay for his mother's care. He ended up living in his car for a time, and Gisela was ultimately moved to an assisted living facility.

"This is devastating; my mother and I are very, very close, we have always been very close," Marcus said.

Marcus is clearly frustrated with the situation, and a court investigator wrote he "becomes hostile toward facility staff, yells, becomes disruptive and overwhelms staff with his demands," so the public guardian got a court order restricting his visits with his mom -- they must be supervised. Marcus says he recorded their last meeting to protect himself from what he calls the public guardian's "lies."

Gisela Riordan: "They have done it to me. Taken everything. Why? I'm not a criminal. I haven't done anything.
Bruce: "OK, you've managed to make your mother very upset.
Marcus Riordan: "I didn't make my mother upset. She's upset, sir.
Bruce: "OK, I'm going to ask you to turn off your tape."

Linda Kincaid is an advocate with the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse. She says not only is the public guardian restricting Marcus Riordan's visits with his mom, but all of Gisela's potential visitors.

"Gisela clutched my arm and sobbed onto my shoulder for an hour talking about how lonely she is," Kincaid said.

Kincaid was able to see her twice before getting kicked out of the facility. She says 18 members of her group have tried to call and set up visits with Gisela -- all have been denied.

"If the laws were followed and her rights were observed and honored, this would not be happening," Kincaid said.

Kincaid points to the Notice of Conservatee's Rights -- a document in every conserved person's court file: "Unless a court limits or takes away a right, like visits from family or friends, then the conservatee retains the right to have these visitors."

And California Code Title 22 states a resident has a right "to have his or her visitors, including ombudspersons and advocacy representatives, permitted to visit privately during reasonable hours and without prior notice."

"If you took your grandmother and locked her up in the spare bedroom, you could go to jail for that, but if the public guardian does it to your grandmother it's called conservatorship," Kincaid said.

The I-Team wanted to see if the public guardian is following the rules. Dan Noyes walked into Villa Fontana and asked to see Gisela and another conserved woman. The staff called the county.

"The resident is conserved by the county and we have to follow the rules; they have a court order that puts them in charge of the resident," Villa Fontana spokesperson Steve Hooker said.

The public guardian's office told the I-Team that Noyes couldn't see Gisela or the other woman until they performed a background check on him and they instructed Villa Fontana to call the police.

Dan Noyes: "Why call the police on me? What danger did I pose to anyone at the nursing home?
Lee Pullen: "I think you and the public should feel good about that because that means the public guardian, acting as the conservator of individuals in any kind of residential facility, is thinking first of protecting that person's interest."
Dan Noyes: "Oh come on, what about me was a danger to anyone?"

Noyes introduced himself to the officer who responded -- he didn't really understand why he was there. He gave Noyes an incident card and left.

"We absolutely want people to see other individuals, to have socialization, to be around family and friends, but it needs to be done in a way that isn't going to be alarming to them and that we know about," Pullen said.

Marcus Riordan says the I-Team got just a taste of the trouble he's received from the county.

According to the court investigator, Gisela, despite her dementia, is capable of choosing a president -- they made sure she's registered to vote. Marcus says she should be able to pick her own visitors and choose where she lives.

"I was wondering, if I'm still alive, would they let me come home for Christmas, like, just Christmas Day," Gisela asks on the recording.

Marcus says his mother recently got a new phone in her room, so they can speak more often. He's made a couple mistakes in fighting to regain control of his mother's care -- failing to show up for two court dates. It's been a stressful time and Marcus felt the deck was stacked against him.

By the way, the public guardian said it would take two days for that background check -- it's been more than two weeks and the I-Team is still waiting.

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