What would you do if a court-appointed guardian swooped into your life and took control of your home and finances without any warning?
Not only that, but this guardian limited what your family members knew about it. They even limited contact among family members.
It sounds kafka-esque. But in some cases, that was happening in Clark County for years.
New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv wrote about abuses in the Clark County guardianship program in a recent article titled, “The Takeover—senior citizens are losing their assets and their autonomy to a hidden system.”
"A guardian is appointed when a someone has been deemed by a court to be incompetent whether that's due to age or disability," Aviv said. "A guardian comes in and essentially takes over all of that person's decisions. Their medical decisions, their financial decisions, their domestic decisions."
Guardians serve a useful purpose because they can protect people who are vulnerable. They can also step in if there is a dispute between family members.
However, Aviv said in Nevada holes in the system made it easy for people to take control of people's lives often with little or no oversight.
"What I found was that often the courts were not examining the cases closely enough to determine in which cases a guardian was actual essential," she said.
Elizabeth Brickfield is an attorney and is a member of the Nevada Supreme Court Guardianship Commission. The commission was created after a number of cases of guardians exploiting the people they were supposed to help came to light.
She agreed that in the past the court tasked with monitoring the program and deciding who should be put under a guardianship was overwhelmed and understaffed.
She said there wasn't enough time for the single judge making the decisions to look through paperwork. And the judge had to rely on the documents submitted by the person who was asking to be the guardian.
Another problem with how Nevada's system worked was people could submit that paperwork ex-parte, which meant the judge didn't have to listen to the other side, including a family member or the protected person themselves.
This is what happened in the case of Rudy and Rennie North. It is a case Aviv detailed in her article.
The Norths were in their mid-70s and living in a home in North Las Vegas when they got a knock on the door one morning from a woman named April Parks.
Parks told the couple that she was their private guardian and she was in control of their finances. She said she was moving them to an assisted living home in Boulder City.
She also said if they didn't comply she would call the police. The Norths tried to argue but ultimately went with her. When their daughter, who lived just a few minutes away, came to visit, she found them gone.
Aviv said Parks, who is now facing numerous charges related to this case and others, used a "vast referral network" of attorneys, rehabilitation facilities and doctors to find people like the Norths and petition the court for guardianship.
Homa Woodrum is the chief advocacy attorney for the Aging and Disability Services Division of the Nevada State Department of Health and Human Services.
"What Parks did is she used the court to approve excessive fees for herself and for her friends and other attorneys," Woodrum said, "And what we're seeing across Nevada right now is that continuing pattern of inuring benefits to individuals that seem on the up and up because it has a judge's signature."
Woodrum said Parks is not the only person who diverted assets from the people they were supposed to protect. In fact, she said she has been involved with 47 cases similar to the Norths case.
She also said there are private guardians in Nevada now that will visit clients frequently not because they care about their well being but because it increases their fee.
"What's the incentive there?" she said, "For someone who views an individual not as a human being with independent rights but as a cash cow. It's unacceptable."
Terry Williams is a citizen advocate who now lives in Los Angeles, but while living in Las Vegas, she ran into the problems in the guardianship program by accident.
While trying to work out issues with her father's will in probate court, she heard a gentleman begging a judge to let him see his mother. She pulled the files on that case and several other cases and found what she called "a pattern" of problems with the guardianship program and the use of ex-parte petitions.
Williams said she tried to file fraud charges with Metro Police, but Metro wouldn't take a police report.
"The police have never taken a report," Williams said, "My final attempt was in 2006... and they simply said 'not a police matter' and now as of 2015 this absolutely is a police matter."
It was in 2015 that lawmakers started to address some of the problems with the program after a series of stories about April Parks and another private guardian Patience Bristol emerged.
Since then, the Nevada Supreme Court Guardianship Commission and the Legislature have instituted a number of changes.
Brickfield said the number of courts to handle the cases has increased from one to three. There is also now a bill of rights for potential protected persons.
A person who is going to be placed under a guardianship is appointed an attorney right away. They must also go to court and their relatives and friends must be informed about what is happening.
"The judiciary, the Legislature, the social services agencies, the lawyers in Nevada have all worked together to try to change the system and to make sure these abuses don't continue," Brickfield said.
As for the Norths, they spent 18 months in the assisted living home in Boulder City before the guardianship was suspended, Aviv said. Most of their money is gone and now their daughter is living with them in their home.
(Editor's note: This conversation origionally aired Nov. 15, 2017)
Rachel Aviv, Staff Writer, The New Yorker magazine; Elizabeth Brickfield, attorney and member of the Nevada Supreme Court Guardianship Commission; Homa Woodrum, Chief Advocacy Attorney, Aging and Disability Services Division of the Nevada State Dept. of Health and Human Services; Terry Williams, citizen advocate
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