Exploitation of older adults by guardians on the rise
Terri Black had always planned to care for her widowed father in her home if he ever became too frail to care for himself. In June 2013, Black, an only child, decided it was time: Her father’s longtime companion in Las Vegas had informed her that she could no longer handle his dementia, diabetes and other health issues and asked that the daughter take him.
Not long before, Black discovered that the companion, Helen Natko, had transferred $200,000 from her father’s bank account — a move that would eventually end in a criminal conviction.
But when Black and her husband, Richard, flew to Las Vegas to take her father, Delford Mencarelli, to their home in Cornelius, North Carolina, Natko refused to let them in the house, according to an account Terri Black filed with the Clark County District Court in Nevada. The Blacks called the Las Vegas police, and the officers who showed up told Black that her only recourse was obtaining legal guardianship.
And thus began a harrowing two-year odyssey in the guardianship system. Soon after Black filed a court petition, Natko countered with her own petition. A judge ordered a trial and appointed a temporary professional guardian. Mencarelli continued to live with Natko.
Terri Black’s experience is far from unusual: The Government Accountability Office has found that state guardianship systems across the country are rife with exploitation. State courts appoint guardians to protect the vulnerable, but the GAO has identified hundreds of cases of negligence, as well as physical and financial abuse.
In Black’s case, the guardian set a schedule for telephone calls between father and daughter. Once, Black recalled, when she sought permission to take her father to a restaurant, the guardian and lawyers on both sides negotiated the terms, racking up, she estimated, $2,500 in fees. “I was treated like a criminal for wanting to take my dad out for dinner,” Black said in an interview. The outing never occurred.
During a trial in June 2014, Black’s lawyers submitted evidence that Natko had neglected Mencarelli’s medical needs. Casino records also showed that she had amassed thousands of dollars in gambling losses. According to bank documents, Mencarelli had transferred two checks totaling $200,000 from a Pennsylvania account he held jointly with Black to a new joint account with Natko. At the time of the transfers, neurological tests showed, Mencarelli was too cognitively impaired to know what he was signing. At one point, according to court papers, Natko transferred $195,000 to her own account, but eventually moved it back to the joint account on the advice of her lawyers.
Natko and her lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. In a deposition in November 2013, Natko said she and Mencarelli had decided to open a joint account in July 2012 with $150,000 from the account he held with his daughter. He had been hospitalized a couple of months earlier, and they decided he should have money in Las Vegas in case of an “emergency,” she said. Natko also said they had lived together for a long time, and “he wanted to make sure I was taken care of if something happened to him.”
In a huge blow to Black, the judge awarded sole guardianship to Natko on July 11, 2014 — even while noting that Mencarelli had lacked cognitive capacity at the time of the transfers. The judge ordered the money moved to a guardianship account, which Natko came to control substantially as the guardian.
Black, a retired accountant, was devastated. “I felt such emotional stress that this was my loved one and that there was nothing I could do to help him,” she said.
Natko remained guardian even after prosecutors, three months later, charged her with felony exploitation of a vulnerable person, accusing her of taking thousands of dollars from Mencarelli. A jury convicted Natko in April on the exploitation charge, as well as on theft for the $195,000 transfer to her personal account. She is scheduled to be sentenced Monday.
Mencarelli remained in Natko’s house until he died, July 3, 2015, at age 84.
Though state laws differ, a judge who rules that a person is cognitively impaired can appoint a guardian, sometimes a company, to oversee the person’s well-being. The guardian can decide to sell the ward’s house and move him or her into a nursing home. The guardian can also choose which of the ward’s friends and relatives can visit.
The National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit think tank, estimates that guardians across the country supervise 1.3 million adults and an ag- gregate of $50 billion of their assets. Brenda K. Uekert, the center’s principal court research consultant, said that with the “aging of the baby boomers and the onset of dementia, we expect those numbers to go up.”
In November 2016, the GAO reported that in eight cases it examined in six states, guardians were found to have stolen more than $600,000 from their elderly wards. A 2010 GAO report found that from 1990 to 2010 guardians in 20 cases stole $5.4 million.
One reason for guardianship exploitation: a lack of money for oversight, according to Uekert and other reform advocates. State courts cannot afford to hire enough people to monitor the well- being of wards and to scrutinize the guardians’ stewardship of assets. They also say that many judges, who usually preside in probate or family court, do not have the time or expertise to conduct more than a cursory review before granting a guardianship petition.
Richard Black became so enraged by his experience in Nevada that he left a well-paying job to push for guardianship reforms full time. He is now the volunteer executive director of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, lobbying legislatures and counseling families engulfed in guardian disputes. “If this can happen to my family, it can happen to anyone,” he said.