Ex­ploita­tion of older adults by guardians on the rise

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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