Guest Author: Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D.,
licensed private investigator and author of Police Communication in Traffic Stops and Private Investigation Strategies and Techniques
“Law enforcement agents, social workers, and judges have all been trained to maintain a watchful eye over exploitative family members. Yet no one seems to be guarding the guardians. Family members have complained to local law enforcement, the state attorneys’ office, and even the F.B.I. “
Marie Long was worth $1.3 million when she suffered a stroke and came under the “protection” of a professional guardian. Three short years later, she is penniless and subsisting off of a meager social security pension and Medicaid.
- Louise A. Falvo, 91, had accumulated nearly one million dollars when she was placed under a guardianship that was commenced with a forgery of her daughter’s signature by a probate attorney. Within three months, Louise A. Falvo was dead. Two and a half years later, the guardianship remains open. The guardian and her attorneys have, to date, been awarded by the judge more than $350,000.00 of Falvo’s estate—“to benefit the ‘ward’”—who is deceased.
- Corretta Brown was placed under guardianship when the Department of Children and Families discovered that her home was uninhabitable. Today, Brown is deceased, her assets have disappeared (more than $100,000.00), and all of her debts—totaling more than $75,000.00 in nursing home costs, remain unpaid. The professional guardian, it was discovered, was not licensed and has since fled the state of Florida with Brown’s assets.
- Marie Sandusky signed a power of attorney to guarantee that her beloved daughter, and not her rejected son, would manage her financial affairs and health care directives. Today, Sandusky has a court-appointed guardian who has spent more than $300,000.00 of Sandusky’s money in attorney’s fees. The reason? Sandusky’s rebuked son hired an attorney and together they made false allegations against Sandusky’s beloved daughter. As the “wheels of justice” move forward, Sandusky’s money is legally used to fund the frivolous feud.
- Debra Duffield, 58, has been under the control of a professional guardian for the last four years. She was only 54 years old when an involuntary guardianship was petitioned against her by a professional guardian who gleefully discovered (tipped off by a social worker) Duffield’s substantive worth when Duffield was hospitalized for anorexia and a broken hip. During the last four years, the vast majority of her assets have been converted to attorney and guardian fees. Duffield, who was diagnosed as merely bipolar, had allegedly been financially exploited by a friend—hence, the rationale for the guardianship. She is confined to a nursing home without rehabilitation . She sits in a bed, smelling of urine and fecal matter, watching television. The guardian and her attorney regularly and steadfastly bill her account for merely “reading her file” or checking on the latest whereabouts of her former girlfriend. Soon, Duffield, who once owned a fabulous house complete with expensive antiques, valuable imported rugs and fine paintings, will be penniless.
When you hear the word “professional guardian,” what do you think? Do you think of someone who protects the elderly? Assists them with their daily needs? Guarantees they are protected from financial exploitation and physical neglect?
The pristine image of professional court-appointed guardians who allegedly protect the elderly is being challenged. Grass root organizations, such as the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse ((N.A.S.G.A.) and A.N.G.E.R. (Advocates for National Guardianship Ethics and Reform) are claiming that professional guardians, their attorneys—and even judges—need to be watched.
- May 25, 2010. Latifa Ring of Elder Abuse Victims Advocates addressed the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security stating, “ . . . exploitation in guardianships is rampant. It is largely kept out of the public eye under the guise of ‘protection.’”
“Family members are portrayed as “Osama Bin Laden” or the devil incarnate,” David Newman said, a guardian reform advocate.
These “unproven and often false allegations” commence a flurry of legal activity that can only be likened to Charles Dickinson’s Bleakhouse. While family members are forced to spend thousands of dollars defending themselves against the false accusations, these same accusers—oftentimes, the professional guardians– handsomely profit from the legal havoc they create.
“The Guardians Need to be Watched”
Take, for example, the recently widely publicized case of Clay Greene and Harold Scull, a gay couple who had cogently cohabitated together for more than 20 years, rendering mutual durable powers of attorney, wills, and other legal declarations upon one another. When Scull, 89, unexpectedly fell onto a stone patio, paramedics were called and the local sheriff department hastily alleged that Greene had intentionally shoved Scull to the ground. Yet, despite the fact that all charges were subsequently dropped, the public guardianship office for Sonoma County used the already disproved physical abuse allegation to commence an involuntary guardianship against Scull. Scull was removed to a nursing home, isolated him from Greene, and the couple’s jointly owned property which included valuable paintings, expensive Persian rugs, antiques, silverware, jewelry, and real estate—was sold for far less than appraised value—at least according to the court records. It was later discovered that the items had been sold for far more by the public guardianship office.
These types of guardianship irregularities have sparked a guardianship task force Special Committee on Aging, which reported, “. . .guardianship . . . has the potential of harming older adults rather than protecting them . . . . The . . . continuing reports of the failure of courts . . . to prevent [financial] exploitation of incapacitated adults by their guardians have long been of concern to this Committee.”
Greene sued the public guardianship office who settled with him for approximately $600,000.00 just days before trial. Amy Todd-Gher, Greene’s attorney, stated, “This victory sends an unmistakable message that all elders must be treated with respect and dignity . . . and that those who mistreat elders must be held accountable. [But] Even as we celebrate this victory . . . we are deeply troubled that the Sonoma [County] continues to refuse to take responsibility for their egregious misconduct. . . . We urge every citizen . . . to demand more oversight of the Public Guardian’s office. They need to be watched.”
An Alarmingly Common Practice
Is elder financial exploitation by professional guardians and their attorneys a commonplace occurrence? According to John Caravella, a former detective and office manager for Seniors vs. Crime, a special project of the Florida Attorney General’s Office, Gainesville, Florida, the answer is “yes.”
Caravella became simultaneously intrigued and disturbed by the court-sanctioned practices of professional guardians on their “wards” (the legal term dubbed to those who have lost all of their civil rights under court-mandated guardianship) when one of his neighbors mysteriously disappeared shortly after receiving an inheritance of more than a quarter of a million dollars. The neighbor, referred to as “Adelle” in Caravella’s book, “Marked for Destruction,” had been falsely induced by a stock broker, whom she had consulted about her fledgling inheritance money, to sign papers that authorized a professional guardian and her attorney to manage Adele’s finances–if she should become mentally incapacitated. Within a few weeks, the guardian and her attorney petitioned the court alleging that Adele was not competent to manage her own affairs. The court authorized that she be stripped of all of her civil rights and placed in a nursing home. Soon thereafter, Adele’s recently acquired $250,000.00+ was quickly consumed by the attorney and guardian for “professional services” fees. And Adele soon passed away.
How It All Begins
Kevin Gallagher had a trusted, longstanding pact with his beloved parents: When the time was “right,” he would make arrangements for their safe return to Maine where they would reside in assisted living. That “right time” came unexpectedly one day after Sunday services when Robert and Elsa Gallagher became slightly disoriented in traffic when they happenchanced upon orange cones in a road detour. Kevin and Lisa, delighted to hear that their parents were ready to journey home, began making all of the necessary arrangements. Kevin even phoned his estranged Orlando-based sister, Lori, and asked if she would simply “telephone” Mom and Dad during the interim. The sister, however, consulted the Yellow Pages and telephoned a company, Geriatric Care Management, that specializes in elder care.
The Sheriffs Arrive
Within 48 hours, a professional guardian and owner of an elder care company, arrived at the Gallagher’s doorstep with a court order and two deputy sheriffs. She had hastily petitioned to become the couple’s “emergency temporary guardian” after learning of their substantive assets. Upon her arrival, the couple were forcefully removed from their home and placed in separate nursing home facilities. Mrs. Gallagher, hysterical, secretly phoned her daughter-in-law, her speech slurred, crying for help. She had been forcibly administered psychotropic drugs. Three medical professionals quickly examined her while under the influence of the narcotics, and declared both she and her husband simultaneously 100% mentally incapacitated. The predator, triumphant, was quickly appointed the permanent, plenary guardian.
The first move was to harness all of the assets.
The Legal Contest Commences
Instead of making arrangements for their safe return home, Kevin Gallagher suddenly found himself furiously searching for Florida attorneys. Meanwhile, the guardians’ legal counsel quickly filed papers to block Kevin’s attempts at removing his parents from Florida to Maine. A hotly contested guardianship soon commenced with attorneys from both sides legally authorized to generously pay themselves from the Gallaghers’ assets.
“The story is always the same,” states Newman, a guardianship reform advocate. “A family member fights the guardianship; then the family member later ‘wins’ the contest–when all the assets have been spent in attorneys’ fees.”
Three years passed. Kevin found himself switching attorneys four times in an attempt to get the legal nightmare to stop
Then, suddenly, it did stop. Kevin was declared the winner of the contest.
All of the assets had been spent.
“They then placed my parents on a airplane with a single suitcase with a broken zipper,” Kevin stated. “Inside the suitcase were tattered clothes that had the names of other people in Magic Marker inside the clothes. Everything they had owned—even their clothes—had been sold or trashed by the guardian.”
Both Elsa and Robert died shortly after returning to Maine.
Family Feud –or- An Open Invitation for Fraud?
Corrine Branson, 82, had been happily living in Miami Beach with the daily assistance of a CNA when her grandson secretly petitioned the court to become his grandmother’s guardian. When Branson learned that she was to be moved into a nursing home, she quickly phoned her beloved daughter, aunt to the grandson, who had been granted a springing power of attorney many years before. Bonnie Reiter, with little knowledge of guardianships or guardianship law, quickly hired an attorney who suggested that a “professional guardian” be appointed during the interim legal contest.
It turned out that the guardian he suggested works with him on a regular basis. Reiter fired her attorney, hired another, and then moved for a court hearing which her mother planned to attend.
“Two weeks prior to the hearing, my mother ended up mysteriously dead,” Reiter stated.
The guardianship remained open after Branson’s death with Reiter, alone, having spent $130,000.00 in attorneys’ fees.
“They took more than $800,000.00 of my mother’s money in attorneys’ fees. The guardianship, in which my mother had never even been declared mentally incapacitated, lasted less than three months. This is a racketeering scheme that needs to be investigated. The F.B.I. should step in.
Different Names, Same Story
- An Orange County court auditor discovered $50,000.00 missing three days before the ward died. The judge ordered an “Order to Show Cause.” Prior to the hearing, the guardian and her attorney simply brought back the missing money and placed it back with the court. The judge dropped the scheduled hearing.
- Court records show that the guardian received $12,000.00 a month to pay the nursing home bills for Carlisle Bosworth. However, the skilled nursing home facility where he was placed charges only $6,000.00 a month. No investigation has ever been conducted regarding what happened to the extra $6,000.00 per month. Bosworth died shortly after all of his money had been spent.
- Marion Copley was placed on Medicaid–even though her guardian, sold her home for more than $250,000.00
- Professional guardian petitioned the court to become an elderly woman’s guardian when she discovered the woman had no living relatives. She told the judge that the woman, who was still living independently in her home, had “bats flying all over the inside of the house.” The allegation earned the predator another guardianship and the victim was removed from her home. Neighbors later stated that they had never seen “bats flying all over the house.”
- Professional guardian obtained a guardianship over Christian Van Beekum stating that neighbors had exploited him. A quick search of the property records showed that the neighbors who had allegedly exploited Van Beekum had actually sold their home and moved to another state six years prior.
- James Deaton had owned an extensive coin collection, an expensive baseball card collection, and his deceased mother’s diamond rings and pearl necklaces, according to relatives. None of these items were ever listed on the guardian’s inventory report.
Law enforcement agents, social workers, and judges have all been trained to maintain a watchful eye over exploitative family members. Yet no one seems to be guarding the guardians. Family members have complained to local law enforcement, the state attorneys’ office, and even the F.B.I.
Perhaps someone should be investigating.*
*Note: Dr. Angela V. Woodhull, a licensed private investigator, spent more than two and a half years investigating court records in Seminole and Orange Counties, Florida and interviewing family members and victims in order to compose this story. All court records that verify the contents of this article were submitted as attachments to the editor of the F.B.I. journal as verification of accuracy. Woodhull can be reached at (352) 327-3665 or