Laura Francais-Eugene

“If you think a guardianship situation cannot be the equivalent of legally imposed slavery, ask 78-year-old Margaret Carson, an African-American woman residing in Washington, DC. She is lively, alert, in full control of her faculties. Her only vice (in the eyes of the manager of the Ashbury Dwellings senior housing complex where she lives) is that she has too many mementos in her apartment of her five children, all of whom she outlived.”

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As human beings, we live in a world of relationships. There are, of course, hundreds or even thousands of relationships we can name to describe how one person relates to another: parent-child; employer-employee; landlord-tenant.

Relationships take place within the context of a situation – in other words, how one person is situated in regard to another person, as we compare their roles, their rights, their power and obligations – legal, moral and otherwise. For example, the parent-child relationship takes place within the context of the Family or Familial relationship. Bosses and workers relate to each other in the contact of an Employment relationship. Landlords and tenants are acquainted over the matter of property usage. And as mentioned, rights and obligations and powers are assigned to each of the participants by our society’s laws and traditions.

Two other situations in which human beings “relate” to each other – one, thankfully, is largely historic and passé in terms of its place in society. The other is – perhaps unfortunately – very modern and quietly, even at times insidiously prevalent in society.

The first situation is a word we are all familiar with – “slavery”. The relationship is that of master-to-slave. The second situation is something modern mechanisms of law calls “guardianship,” and the relationship there is Guardian-to-Ward, or sometimes Trustee-to-Trustor.

I looked-up both words in Black’s Law Dictionary. That reference book describes “slavery” as a situation – a relationship between human beings – in which one person has absolute power and control over the property, the fortunes, and even the life of another person, at the Master’s discretion, for the Master’s pleasure or benefit, and with all the rights and powers in the hands of the Master to do as he pleases.

The other situation, “guardianship,” is described by Black’s Law Dictionary as a relationship involving legal responsibility. Social law creates a relationship between two people. One person, the guardian, is given broad power to intervene in the life affairs of another person – one “supposedly” less capable, less fortunate, and more disadvantageously situated in life through no fault of their own. But this power, this authority, is given BY LAW to the guardian on the condition that it is used on the behalf of – meaning, for the benefit of – the Ward – the person incapable of exercising that power properly for themselves.

In this regard, this “power” or “authority” given BY LAW is more by nature a duty, a responsibility. Power and authority are things which a person – in this case, a guardian – uses to perform duty and responsibility. Power and authority are also things which a person – in this case, a guardian – abuses in order to distort duty and renege on responsibility, thereby altering the relationship of Guardian-Ward into that of Master-Slave.

A social crisis is occurring in American society and with the American justice system today. It is a crisis in which courts appoint guardians to care for and conserve the financial resources of elderly people – supposedly for the use and benefit solely of the ward. But that’s not how the guardians see it. That is not the mindset with which they approach the task. And that is not the attitude of duty and responsibility they apply to caring for the lives which have been placed in their hands, in their power, in their control.

Sometimes, however, there is another party acting insidiously and selfishly in this dynamic. It is the party which uses its legal power to create this Guardian-Ward relationship in the first place. It is the legal system itself – the courts, specifically Probate court. How high a bar should be set before the law of the land decides that a person’s power to run his or her own life, oversee his or her own finances, decide where he or she will live, or with whom they will live, should be taken away from them and given into the hands of another human being?  I hope you would agree with me, that the bar revoking one’s freedom of choice, one’s freedom of life – in fact, one’s freedom to exercise his or her own freedom at all – should be set very high.

Sadly, it is not. And it might surprise, and even astound you, at how low that bar is sometimes set. In the case of elderly people from minority backgrounds who have managed to accumulate a modicum of financial success and assets during their life – assets that some corrupt court systems and some corrupt “guardians” see as ripe for the plucking after the “ward” has been divested of his or her rights granted under the normal functioning of the American legal system – that bar can be set appallingly, even criminally, low.

But who would suspect a beneficent court system of misconduct? Who would ever suspect a caregiver, knighted with the noble name of “guardian,” of such misdeeds? Let me tell you, suspect it . . . beware of it . . . be on guard from it . . . because this malfeasance of power on the part of the legally enlightened and empowered, against the interests of the aged, elderly and legally disempowered, is what I am here today to bring to your attention – an accusation I am bringing against the system of Guardianship in place today in most jurisdictions in American law. 

If you think a guardianship situation cannot be the equivalent of legally imposed slavery, ask 78-year-old Margaret Carson, an African-American woman residing in Washington, DC. She is lively, alert, in full control of her faculties. Her only vice (in the eyes of the manager of the Ashbury Dwellings senior housing complex where she lives) is that she has too many mementos in her apartment of her five children, all of whom she outlived. Mrs. Carson was forced unwillingly to become subject to the city’s Probate Court system, where a judge ruled her incompetent, a necessary step in depriving her of due process and the financial fruits of her years of labor in the work force – namely, the retirement benefits to which she was entitled. These benefits were put under the legal control of a so-called “guardian” whom Mrs. Carson was forced to beg for use of her own money. Once independent, self-supporting and self-reliant, Mrs. Carson is now dependent on a stranger for the basic necessities of life.

Another elderly resident of the Ashbury Dwellings, 89-year-old Helen Caraway, found herself facing a judge who declared her incapacitated, enabling him to appointed another guardian/stranger to control all her personal and financial affairs, despite the pleas of family members (a younger sister and a niece) who volunteered to take on the responsibility. Having known Mrs. Caraway all her life, and having an emotional investment in her, these family members were perfectly situated to properly care for Mrs. Caraway in all aspects of her life, and also had familial and loving motivation to conserve her remaining finances for use throughout the remainder of her life.

Such certainly was NOT the motivation of the guardian/stranger appointed by the courts to oversee Mrs. Caraway’s life. That professional guardian invoked her legal powers of the 89-year-old woman to confine her to her home and also to seize her bank account and decide unilaterally how the money is to be used. And how is it used…? Not for the captive Mrs. Caraway’s benefit. Instead, it is being spent-down to cover supposed “services” provided by the guardian, who holds the helpless senior in at her financial mercy, denying her the use of her own money. The old woman is now supported solely by family and friends who supplement her food, clothing, and other necessities of life.

“I feel so helpless,” the old woman said one day in court at a hearing to remove the guardian. “How could someone come in and take over my life even after I stated I could handle my own affairs?”  The judge would not listen to me. No one listened. Mrs. Caraway’s petition to reclaim control of her life was denied. And her captivity under the control of a “guardian” who only serves to steal her money continues, and will continue until the money is all gone.

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