Stories of people who have been under guardianship or had their rights restored shine a light on the impact of guardianship and the need for less restrictive alternatives. We are talking with individuals across North Carolina who have lived experience with guardianship and will share their stories here.

Robyn's story

July 14, 2016

Dear DRNC,

When my mom died when I was just 15 years old, my mom was everything to me. I’m the youngest of five. My mom made it her mission to make sure that if anything ever happened to her, I would be taken care of.

Rhonda is the oldest, older than me. Mom wanted to find a lawyer but wound up finding two. I didn’t know this information until I went to a conference to get information about how to get my guardianship restored. That’s when I learned I had two lawyers: Deborah Greenblatt and Sheila Benninger. Deborah Greenblatt made it her mission to have my guardianship restored back to me in 2002. If it hadn’t been for her, I would never have gotten my guardianship.

Till this day I still talk about how I got my guardianship. I always get questions from parents that want their child to have their own guardianship and from adults who have guardians, but want their guardianship restored.

But what makes me the proudest is when I know Deborah Greenblatt gave me my confidence to tell other people about guardianship.

Robyn Dorton
Project STIR Trainer in Self-Advocacy

Maureen's story

Mother and son

“When I was told that I should petition for guardianship, the first thing I thought of was ‘Guardian Angel’ – someone to protect you and guide you. It had no negative connotation attached to it.”

And now? “I think guardianship should be used only if someone is comatose. The reality is that many people are not advanced enough as human beings to put someone else’s needs ahead of their own.”

These are the reflections of Maureen, the mother of Lukas, now in his 30’s who has recently moved in with his father after going through a challenging guardianship process and living in group homes for the past two years.

Maureen was born in Brooklyn, NY where she lived for 35 years. A lifelong potter who is currently enrolled in Sociology and Legal Studies at UNC Asheville, she raised her young son and daughter in an intentional community caring for the elderly in upstate New York in the 90’s and 00’s with a Waldorf School and tutoring from caring, retired teachers.

Lukas, a creative and sensitive child who writes poetry to this day, has congenitally malformed ear canals as well as a CMT neuromuscular disorder, (similar to Muscular Dystrophy) which required special medical attention and surgical procedures in his youth.

In adolescence, Lukas’s behavior began to change and there were safety concerns within the family and community. During that time, Lukas displayed symptoms of a possible mental illness. He moved in with his father and at 19 was diagnosed with Schizoid Affective and Bipolar Disorder.

Lukas’ mother, stepfather and father moved to North Carolina when Lukas was 25. Maureen was able to see him more often and Lukas was writing poetry. Over the next two years, he started getting out, doing things, becoming involved in NAMI, (National Alliance on Mental Illness) once making hotdogs at an event and referring to it as “the best day of my life.”

At 30, Lukas had a mental health crisis, and Maureen was told by a social worker “If I were you, I would petition for guardianship so he doesn’t go back to his father.” Maureen asked two other social workers if she should pursue guardianship and they both said yes.

Lukas was in the hospital when his mother petitioned for guardianship. The Asst. Clerk of Court casually told her that her ex-husband would have his day in court if he didn’t agree. When Maureen expressed concern about the permanency of the guardianship, the Asst. Clerk told her it could always be reversed. There was no information given at the Court on guardianship and its responsibilities and consequences.

From a list, the Assistant Clerk assigned Lukas a Guardian ad Litem, (GAL) who visited Lukas while in a psychotic episode in the hospital, unable to speak for himself at the time, but did not interview friends and neighbors to determine “substituted judgment,” (i.e., speak to people who knew him before his psychotic episode to know what he would have wanted) instead meeting with the two parent’s attorneys to determine “best interest,” which resulted in a recommendation to the Clerk that Lukas be assigned a third party guardian.

On the day of Lukas’ guardianship hearing, Lukas’ father, Maureen, and their daughter assembled in the courtroom and the Clerk of Court ruled in favor of a third party guardian. The hearing was not recorded (this is done at the discretion of the Clerk) and Maureen received the 2 page GAL report halfway through the hearing.

Maureen knew going into the courtroom that the assignment of a third party guardian was the likely outcome. However, at the time, she said to herself, “Maybe this will be a good thing – that we will work collaboratively to help Lukas.”

A second hearing included the assigned guardian and Maureen realized that the collaboration she hoped for was not going happen. The guardian would not speak to her after the hearing, eventually giving her thirty minutes to share all she wanted to share about Lukas and his background.

Eventually, Lukas was taken from the hospital and placed in a group home. Maureen was ordered not to contact Lukas and was unable to see him for three months. She was repeatedly told, “Lukas doesn’t want to talk to you.” However, as soon as he was moved to another group home, he had sudden access to his mail and the telephone and they were back in touch with each other.

In the past month, Lukas has moved back in with his father while retaining his third party guardian. Although it is still early, he is fairly stabilized on his medication and Lukas’ mother and father are seeing a counselor on a regular basis to align their vision and support for him.

What are Maureen’s goals and dreams for Lukas? She wants him to find a place to live and be happy and pursue his own dreams of getting a job and finding a girlfriend. She also hopes he will exercise his creativity through poetry and his interest in cooking.

Finally, together with Lukas' father and stepfather, she envisions a restoration of Lukas’ rights, which wouldn’t be happening without considerable advocacy.

What important change would she make to the guardianship system in North Carolina? “When people go to file a petition, they should be given information, perhaps a brochure, that makes it clear what guardianship is and what alternatives exist. I think there should a 24-hour waiting period time period given to read this information. Guardianship is SO serious and legally binding.”

**Photo – Maureen and Lukas, while living at the intentional community in upstate New York – March 1993

Peggy's story

Twin sisters

The telling of Peggy’s story begins at the end, when she had her last conversation with the new Assistant Clerk of Court in this North Carolina County:

Recently, when asking for help to see her twin sister Jean after three years of being blocked from doing so by Jean’s guardian, despite a recent court order explicitly stating that she had the right to see her sister, the Clerk stated,

“It is not our job to enforce orders concerning the guardian of the person; it’s just our job to review the accounting of the guardian of the estate.” The follow-up question from Peggy: “So whose responsibility is it to enforce the orders of the guardian of the person?” The Clerk’s answer: “Nobody’s.” Peggy’s reply: “What should I do to be able to see my sister?” The Clerk’s answer: “You need to file a petition for another hearing.” Peggy said, “If the orders aren’t enforced from the hearing, what good would this do?” The Clerk did not answer…

A soft-spoken, intelligent Registered Nurse and mental health advocate, Peggy recounted the earlier life that she lived with her mother and twin sister. Born in 1951, the twins were raised by their mother with support from a loving grandmother and an aunt nearby. They played music together in a band, were very active in 4H, went to the Governor’s School in Winston Salem and in general, developed a very close bond.

“Jean was a wonderful musician – she played piano and clarinet and was good in math. She was a very sweet person. We shared everything and mother did her best to raise us.”

In the early 1970s, when Jean was 17 or 18, she had a mental health crisis and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and delusional schizophrenia. Jean had to leave school so the twins’ mother asked Peggy to leave school too. Later in that decade, Peggy went back to school and became an RN. She worked at hospitals, the public health center and took care of her family - her mother, sister and eventually, her husband.

Peggy’s challenging journey with guardianship and the court system began in the late 1990s when her sister stopped taking her medication and went in and out of psychiatric hospitals during the twelve years she was living next to Peggy.

In 1999, Peggy was told that her sister needed a guardian; Jean didn’t have insight into her illness and wouldn’t accept that she was sick. A social worker from a mental health agency recommended guardianship and referred Peggy to an attorney. The attorney told Peggy that she was “too close” to be the guardian. Peggy listened and believed her.

At the time, the two sisters were attending NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meetings and shared experiences with others there. A charismatic and persuasive woman attending the meetings took an interest in them. Peggy shared that her sister had a large trust from her father, which she believed was a major factor in this woman’s interest in Jean. Peggy trusted her at the time.

Peggy petitioned for guardianship in 2001 – “I just wanted to do what was best for her” – and testified on Jean’s incapacity (e.g., jumping out of the car and almost getting hit) in court. Jean heard this at the hearing and was upset. The woman from NAMI was in the courtroom and having gained the confidence of the sisters, was named Jean’s general guardian.

Even after the guardianship was assigned, Peggy was still taking care of her sister and the guardian rarely saw her. In 2002, after coming out of inpatient care, the guardian placed Jean in a home by herself and didn’t consult or appear to care what Peggy thought about it. Eventually, Jean was living in an unlicensed family care home, operated by the guardian, and she had run away several times.

In 2006, Peggy petitioned for a hearing to become guardian of the person and estate upon suspicion that the guardian was comingling Jean’s trust funds to benefit her businesses. Although a neighboring county’s Department of Social Services investigated and recommended removal of guardian of person and estate, the Clerk of Court of the county in which Jean had been assigned guardianship ignored the investigation.

During the hearing, the Clerk only heard the guardian’s witnesses and would not listen to Peggy’s witnesses. Although it was found that the guardian had indeed comingled funds, the court allowed her to retain the role of guardian of the person even as the role of guardian of the estate was reassigned to the Public Guardian (a local attorney and a 15-year owner of a bookkeeping business that was set up to aid people with disabilities manage their money).

Persisting in her efforts, Peggy found that her sister’s financial reports, prepared by the newly assigned guardian of the estate were incomplete and inaccurate. Balances appeared to never account for the comingled funds and the Public Guardian let them go through to develop starting balances for the next year.

In the meantime, Jean was living in a small room within a home for over $6000/month from her trust. After the Public Guardian withdrew over $500,000 of Jean’s trust money in five years, he sent a contract to Peggy, asking her to pay for her sister’s expenses, which she did for about a year.

Blocked from visiting her sister, Peggy asked for a hearing in 2008 to be allowed to see her sister and petitioned to be guardian. Unfortunately, the hearing was held on a snowy day and Peggy’s witnesses were unable to get there. During the hearing, the court ruled that Peggy could visit Jean unaccompanied by the guardian but the current guardian was retained.

Peggy visited Jean twice a month for about three years after this hearing, when Jean was placed in another family care home. However, when Peggy could no longer afford to pay over $3,000 a month for her care, Jean’s Guardian of the Person placed her in a family care home that she herself owned and operated. The guardian refused to allow Peggy to visit Jean anymore after this.

To this day, Peggy is blocked from seeing her sister. Which brings us back to the beginning of this story…

“It is not our job to enforce orders concerning the guardian of the person; it’s just our job to review the accounting of the guardian of the estate.” The follow-up question from Peggy: “So whose responsibility is it to enforce the orders of the guardian of the person?” The Clerk’s answer: “Nobody’s.” Peggy’s reply: “What should I do to be able to see my sister?” The Clerk’s answer: “You need to file a petition for another hearing.” Peggy said, “If the orders aren’t enforced from the hearing, what good would this do?” The Clerk did not answer…

Here are Peggy’s comments about her experience:

“There is such a large-scale abuse of the mentally ill financially and otherwise, and their families, by the guardians, court system, social services and family and adult care homes, that the guardian laws and possibly the guardianship system needs to be revised or changed.

There is no accountability or oversight of the guardians or the local court system that is supposed to govern the guardians. With this lack of accountability, the guardian system allows for financial exploitation, fraud, and abuse at several levels. The guardian laws allow for such unlimited interpretation of the law by Court officials, that any basic and vital law can easily be ignored and broken.

The mentally ill are not able to help themselves or to speak for themselves, in many cases, because social workers are told by the guardian that they are unreliable and too sick to be taken seriously.

Many times, family members have not been allowed to participate in care or even allowed to see their mentally ill loved one, even after court orders have been made ordering the guardian to let them see them.

When a system such as this allows such unlimited and ungoverned power of the guardians over their incompetent wards, this system attracts unscrupulous guardians and others who are supposed to monitor the guardians. Especially when large amounts of money are available from federal and state funding and from their ward’s own funds, this provides a very lucrative incentive to become guardian or family care owner.”