Archive

Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

New Yorker article on guardianship abuses has familiar ring

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

An article last month in The New Yorker magazine on abuses in the guardianship system in Nevada is beyond disturbing, and its findings echo many of the concerns we have raised about the dysfunction of the Department of Developmental Services and probate court systems in Massachusetts.

The New Yorker article is primarily about abuses by guardians of the elderly, and it gets into an issue we haven’t fully explored, which is the financial exploitation of people who are represented by professional guardians. But we think many of the article’s points are relevant to the system involving DDS-paid guardians in Massachusetts.

As we have seen in several cases in Massachusetts, the DDS-probate guardianship system has trampled over the rights of family members of developmentally disabled persons, including sharply limiting or even eliminating their right in some cases to contact or visit their loved ones. That is also apparently a feature of the system described in the New Yorker piece.

As is the case in Massachusetts, the primary problems with the system exposed by the New Yorker article appear to lie with abuses by attorneys or other professionals who are appointed as guardians of incapacitated individuals. In many of these cases, family members, who would be better suited to be the guardians, are passed over by the courts and excluded from consideration for that role.

The article and previous reporting by The Las Vegas Review-Journal disclose how two professional guardians named April Parks and Jared Shafer used the probate system in Nevada to become court-appointed guardians of hundreds of people who were mostly elderly, and then took control of their bank accounts, estates,and property.

It isn’t clear whether that type of financial abuse has happened to developmentally disabled persons in Massachusetts, but there appears to be a potential for it. In 2008, an investigative article in The Boston Globe found that some 900 DDS clients in Massachusetts received little or no benefit from trust funds containing some $30 million.

Instead, the money was largely siphoned out of the accounts to pay bank management charges, legal bills, and fees charged by the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court system, “which has long neglected its obligation to ensure the funds are expended for the benefit of some of the state’s most helpless citizens.”

In July, COFAR reported that the state’s system of paying attorneys and corporate providers to serve as guardians of DDS clients is poorly overseen and that the system appears to give professional guardians an incentive to do little work representing individual clients while taking on as many clients as possible.

Families have also been victimized financially by the Massachusetts system. As one family member of a DDS client in Massachusetts described the attitude of the various guardians and clinical and court professionals that she dealt with in the DDS-probate system, “it was just a given that our checkbook was theirs.”

The New Yorker reported that without their families even knowing it, in many instances,  elderly people were removed from their homes by Parks and Shafer who then sold their property and pocketed the money. Parks was indicted last spring on theft and other charges after the local media finally ran stories on the issue.

The New Yorker article further stated that when family members tried to contest the guardianships or become guardians themselves, “they were dismissed as unsuitable, and disparaged in court records as being neglectful, or as drug addicts, gamblers, and exploiters.”  That sounds familiar to us because it is what we’ve seen in a number of cases in Massachusetts.

Another revelation in the article that sounded familiar to us was that the professional guardians often would not inform families about the care and conditions of their loved ones, and often prevented family members from being able to visit them. The director of an assisted-living facility into which many of the wards were placed, is quoted as saying that families were “devastated that they couldn’t know if the residents were in surgery or hear anything about their health. They didn’t understand why they’d been taken out of the picture. They’d ask, ‘Can you just tell me if she’s alive?’ ”

In one case, an elderly couple was moved with little notice by April Parks to a new assisted-living facility. When their daughter tried to visit them there, Parks refused to let her see her parents. According to the article, Parks later wrote that she had told the woman that “she was too distraught to see her parents, and that she needed to leave.” When the woman refused to leave the facility, Parks had the police called who then cited the woman for trespassing.

This sounds very similar to the reasoning given for keeping David and Ashley Barr from visiting David’s daughter, a developmentally disabled woman who has been ordered kept from their contact by a DDS-paid guardian since November 2015. The Barrs were supposedly too emotional when visiting her even though they said the reason they were emotional was because they often found her to be in a heavily drugged state during the visits.

Another family was prevented from talking to their daughter on the phone for a similar reason.

Another revelation in the New Yorker article that had a familiar ring was a description of the longstanding inaction of investigative authorities when presented with evidence of abuses in the guardianship system.

As we’ve said many times, a first step in reforming the DDS-probate system in Massachusetts would be for the Legislature to enact H.887,  a bill which would establish a presumption that parents of a developmentally disabled person are suitable guardians for that person.

The bill would thus make it harder for parents to be bypassed by probate judges who tend to side with DDS, which often favors the appointment of professional guardians in the place of families.

H.887, however, has been stuck in the Judiciary Committee since last January despite the fact that there appears to be no public opposition to the measure. It has been re-filed by Representative David Linsky in every Legislative session since 1999, but has never gotten out of the Judiciary Committee to our knowledge.

We’re hoping, as usual, that this year will be different. But despite a supportive statement last spring from Representative Claire Cronin, House chair of the Committee, that the bill was her “top priority,” the measure hasn’t moved forward in the current legislative session.

It’s time for the Judiciary Committee to finally act on H.887.  The numbers to call there are:

(617) 722-2396 for the office of Rep. Cronin, House chair; and/or

(617) 722-1280 for the office of Senator William Brownsberger, Senate chair.

As noted, this bill is only a first step. We are continuing to urge others in the Legislature as well to step forward to address the underlying systemic problems in the DDS and probate court systems.

Advertisements

Isolation of developmentally disabled woman continues after more than a year and a half

July 5, 2017 2 comments

It has been a year and seven months since David Barr and his daughter, Ashley, were last informed by the Department of Developmental Services of the whereabouts of David’s other daughter, a young woman with a developmental disability and mental illness.

The 29-year-old woman, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, is being kept in an undisclosed residence. All contact with her by her father and sister was cut off for unclear reasons by a DDS-paid guardian in November of 2015.

Although Dorothy Wallace, the DDS guardian, said in August 2015 that her goal was to allow the woman to have family contact, it still hasn’t happened for reasons that have never been revealed to David or Ashley. For unknown reasons, the only family member who has been allowed to visit the woman is an aunt who has apparently agreed not to reveal the woman’s location to the woman’s father or sister.

In an email last week, Ashley Barr told COFAR that her father has personally filed in the Essex County Probate and Family Court to intervene in the case and to seek permission to visit his daughter. But to date, he has not heard from the court.

The probate court has not issued any orders barring visitation with the woman. The denial of virtually all family contact appears to be a decision of the woman’s guardian and possibly DDS.

The Barrs have been unable to afford the cost of hiring a lawyer to pursue their case in probate court. As we have reported in another case, it is extremely difficult to prevail in any probate court proceeding in Massachusetts if you are not a legal guardian or appear without a lawyer.

David and Ashley have contacted their local state legislators, but have gotten little or no help from them. COFAR has attempted to intervene with mainstream media outlets and the legislators in support of visitation for David and Ashley, also to no avail.

Ashley and David Barr

David and Ashley Barr

As we reported in January,  the Boston-based Disability Law Center temporarily intervened in the case that month to ask a state-appointed attorney who is representing the woman to support family visits if the woman wished that. However, nothing apparently resulted from that effort.

The attorney, Melissa Coury Cote, told COFAR in March that she would not support court permission for visits to the woman by David or Ashley Barr, despite the DLC’s request.  She provided no reason to us for opposing family visits other than to say that the woman had not specifically asked her to allow visits from her father and sister.

However, Ashley Barr said that her sister recently called her father on two occasions and said she missed her family and wanted to see them. The calls were apparently unauthorized. Ashley and David don’t know whose phone the woman used to contact them. They are concerned the woman may have gotten in trouble for making the calls.

Coury Cote had previously been appointed by the state Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to represent the woman on guardianship matters.  Under state probate law, incapacitated adults are entitled to free legal representation although their family members are not entitled to that.

COFAR has reported on a number of cases in which DDS-paid guardians have imposed severe restrictions on family contact with persons in the DDS/probate court system; but the Barr case may be the most extreme of those cases in that in none of the other cases has a DDS client been kept in isolation for such a long period of time, and in no other case has their family not been informed of their whereabouts.

COFAR first appealed to DDS Commissioner Elin Howe last October to seek permission for the Barrs to visit their family member, but Howe declined to do so.  In early April, COFAR sent an email to Howe, asking whether a timetable existed for ever reuniting Ashley and David with the woman. Howe did not respond to the query.

According to a transcript of an August 2015 court hearing on the case, Wallace and other DDS officials complained that David Barr was excessively combative in dealing with them and that David and Ashley became overly emotional when they had been allowed to visit the woman prior to the cutoff of all contact with her.

While being combative with DDS over the care provided to a loved one can occasionally result in restrictions placed on family contact, we know of no other case in which all such contact was removed for this long a period of time.

CPCS attorney was reportedly told to keep the family informed

John Byron, a friend of David Barr’s, who attended a probate court hearing on the case with David in March, said the probate court judge seemed to be moved when David said he had been prevented from any contact with the young woman and that no one was providing him with any information about her. According to Byron, the judge then told Attorney Coury Cote that she should communicate with the family and that she (the judge) didn’t want the family “kept in the dark” about the case.

Coury Cote told COFAR the judge had asked her during the hearing only to “take a few minutes to speak with father.” She denied that the judge had ordered her to keep David Barr informed about the case.  At one point, Coury Cote also said that the Barrs were “not entitled to information” about their family member’s whereabouts.

We believe, however, that in light of a Supreme Judicial Court ruling last year involving the guardianship of a woman known as B.V.G. , David and Ashley Barr should be considered by the probate court to be “interested persons” in the welfare of their family member. As such, they are entitled to information about her whereabouts and to be afforded visitation and other rights.

CPCS declines to review the attorney’s conduct

In March, we appealed to Mark Larsen, director of mental health litigation with the CPCS, asking for an investigation of Coury Cote’s conduct in the case. Larsen responded within two days of our appeal to state that the attorney had no obligation “to follow your directions, those of your client (apparently Ashley and David Barr) or of the DLC. Her only obligation is to her client and her client’s wishes.” He stated that “if the family wants a change in visitation, they should consult counsel of their choosing.”

For the record, neither David nor Ashley Barr are clients of COFAR. COFAR is advocating on behalf of them, but our organization does not charge for such advocacy.  Our funding comes strictly from donations made by affiliated organizations and from families.

Larsen also stated that it “appears” that Coury Cote “consulted with her client” in the case.

I wrote back to Larsen to clarify that I had not suggested, or meant to suggest, that Coury Cote should follow our or the DLC’s directions, but that it appeared to us that she “may not have fully ascertained the wishes of her client.” I also stated that Larsen’s comments implied that he did not know for a fact that the Coury Cote had consulted with her client, and that he was only assuming that to be the case.

I noted further that while the CPCS’s Assigned Counsel Manual states that an attorney should “act as a zealous advocate for the client,” the manual also states the attorney should insure “that proper procedures are followed and that the client’s interests are well represented” (my emphasis).

Larsen emailed back a two-sentence reply, badly misspelling my name and saying he had nothing to add to his prior response.

It is frustrating to us, although perhaps not surprising, that the DDS/probate court system seems so often to function against the interests of individuals and families caught up in it. One key reason for this appears to be that there is little or no accountability when professionals in the system act contrary to the interests of people who are powerless and vulnerable.

We always thought the role of legislators and the press was to represent the powerless in society. I think we’re all learning that is no longer the case.

We can only hope that when the Barrs finally do get their day in court, the judge will acknowledge the rights they have been denied and will consider the apparent wish of the young woman involved to see her family again.

In the meantime, we would urge people to call either the governor’s office (617-725-4005) or the DDS commissioner’s office (617-727-5608), and ask them to re-establish family contact in this case. If you do so, please let us know about it.

Disability Law Center aids woman who has been kept away from father and sister by DDS

January 30, 2017 1 comment

In the wake of reports that an intellectually disabled woman has been prohibited for more than a year by the Department of Developmental Services from having any contact with her father and sister, a federally funded legal assistance agency has arranged for legal representation to help the woman challenge the ban.

The Boston-based Disability Law Center opened an investigation late last year of a decision by a DDS-paid guardian to prohibit contact between the woman and her father, David Barr, and sister, Ashley Barr. Based on privacy concerns raised by the DLC, we are no longer publishing the woman’s name.

Earlier this month, a DLC attorney said the agency had assisted in making an attorney available at no charge to the woman to challenge the visitation ban in probate court, if she chooses to do so. The attorney said he was precluded by confidentiality requirements from discussing the investigation or any conclusions he may have reached in the case.

Since Thanksgiving of 2015, David and Ashley Barr have had no information about the woman’s whereabouts. She is believed to be living in a DDS-funded group home, but the Barrs have no idea where that residence might be located.

COFAR has reported that a DDS guardian imposed the ban on all contact with the woman by David and Ashley primarily because they were viewed as too emotional when they were allowed to visit her. Neither David nor Ashley Barr have been charged or implicated in any crimes, yet they said they feel they have been treated by DDS as if they are criminals.

In COFAR’s view, restricting family members from visiting a loved one impinges on a fundamental human right, and the DDS guardian should at least have obtained a probate court order before doing so. DDS should also have made sure the woman had access to legal counsel who could challenge the visitation ban on her behalf. DDS reportedly did neither of those things.

The case appears to involve a clear violation of DDS regulations, which state that people in the Department’s care have the right …“to be visited and to visit others under circumstances that are conducive to friendships and relationships…” (115 CMR 5.04)

The right to visitation is, moreover, a key aspect of family integrity in international human rights law. As an article in the Berkeley Journal of International Law states, “Sufficient consensus exists against particular types of family separation…to constitute customary international law.”

The article discusses Nicholson v. Williams, a class action lawsuit by a group of mothers against the New York City Administration for Child Services (ACS). The lawsuit “challenged ACS’s policy of automatically removing children from homes where domestic violence had occurred even if it meant removing them from the victims rather than the perpetrators of that violence.”

The children of the plaintiffs in Nicholson were kept in foster care for several weeks. According to the law journal, the court “cited the emotional and developmental damage done to the children, (and) the destruction of their family relationships…” that occurred as a result of the separation of the children from their parents (my emphasis).

We would note that the ACS lawsuit was a case involving the removal of children for just a few weeks. The Barr case involves the removal of a family member for more than a year so far, with no indication from DDS that family contact will ever be restored.

While the developmentally disabled woman in Barr case is no longer a child, she has been found to be mentally incapacitated and in need of a guardian. As such, she is in a similar legal position to a child in that she is not considered competent to manage her personal or financial affairs.

The court in Nicholson v. Williams cited specific international provisions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and found that the New York ACS policy “violated the basic human rights of family integrity and freedom from arbitrary interference with family life, as well as the specific right of a child to be cared for by her parents.”

In what seems almost an obvious observation, but one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to DDS, the Berkeley law journal article notes:

People simply care a great deal about their families, and often suffer more from losing them than they do even from serious individual harms they suffer personally.

A couple of other points made in the law journal article are worth highlighting. One is a statement that temporary removal of children from families may cause “lasting harm to the children…especially if frequent visitation is not allowed during the removal period.”

The article also points out that the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) imposes obligations on states in situations where families have already been separated. In particular, the ICRC states that where children are separated from one or both parents “the state must furnish the parents or children with any available information regarding their family members’ whereabouts” (my emphasis).

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in last spring with a decision upholding the right of the grandfather of a developmentally disabled woman to challenge severe restrictions placed on his right to visit her.

As we’ve said before, and will again, major reforms are needed in the state’s probate court system in order to ensure the rights of families to maintain contact with their loved ones in DDS care. One of the first steps is for the Legislature to finally pass a bill (filed in the current session as HD 101) that would require probate judges to presume parents to be suitable guardians for persons with developmental disabilities.