I’ve been in and around politics for nearly 2 decades in one capacity or another. I’ve learned that the policy changes that really matter and are greatly needed are usually not the ones that get the attention they deserve. We as a nation have a habit of talking about legislation and policymaking in a vacuum. It is as if the only issues that matter are the ones that make headlines or are good for campaign slogans and speeches. Education, taxes, regulatory reform, protecting the 1st and 2nd amendment, or whatever the headline-grabbing topic of the day gets all the attention.
Ethics reform here in Alabama is one that (with good reason) has been discussed a lot in recent years. Candidates run on the topics that make for good water cooler or dinner table conversation. The laws related to court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships have probably never made that list for any candidate anywhere. Yet the cone of silence surrounding it doesn’t make it any less important for those who need the system to protect them, their health, and their finances, or those abused by it. Moreover, the lack of attention lets fraud and abuse run rampant throughout the system, and federal and legal experts studying the situation predict it will only worsen as more of our population ages.
Let’s face it; we’re all guilty of perpetuating the problem of ignoring the people and issues that should be a no brainer to fix and protect. Now is as good of a time as any to change that. This is the 8th part of a series meant to bring attention to this policy issue, but I want to circle back to the beginning before I get into it.
For those who have not heard, it is with great sadness that I share that last week, Joann Bashinsky (known by many as Mama B or Mrs. B) passed away and was laid to rest. Mrs. B was the woman whose courage and kindness in fighting her court-ordered conservatorship was detailed in several of the first written editorials of this series and discussed on many of my frequent radio appearances while hosting shows throughout the state.
I often described her as “fiery,” and that’s what she was. When she found herself in a court-ordered conservatorship, she had many tools that not everyone else in the same situation are afforded. First, she had the will and courage to fight it. Most have either but not both. In the audio recordings she made that were a part of my first story in this series, she questioned the assumptions being made about her and her health, and she stood her ground.
She had the wherewithal to know she couldn’t go at it alone against a system that mainly operates in the dark. She told her story to anyone who would listen, and she gave several media interviews to get her story heard.
In the other cases I’ve investigated or am currently investigating, family members or lawyers who speak to me do so confidentially, off the record, or in the background out of fear that direct media coverage naming the parties involved will upset either or both the court-ordered conservator or the judge assigned to the case.
Their fears are not necessarily unreasonable. Based on my research and the work of advocacy groups who shine a light on this subject, the issue of retribution is commonplace. A frequently cited act of retribution for those who speak out or fight back against the system is increased prescription dosages or new drugs added to a ward’s medication routine. Sometimes these medicines are meant to leave the individual confused, weak, or sleepy. This is exactly the type of situation that aides the case against them and contributes to the proof that an individual cannot care for themselves. The second thing that can and too frequently happens to those objecting to their cases is isolation. Wards are kept from their loved ones especially if those loved ones are objecting to the courts actions. These are a powerful method of silencing wards and their families.
Unlike Mrs. B, and in the only other public case I’ve ever heard of in the mainstream media, Britney Spears, the majority of those under court-ordered conservatorships find themselves facing an uphill battle to win back their rights with no media coverage whatsoever.
I’ve spoken to lawmakers on every level from city, county, state, and federal, who had no idea how the system in its current form exists or how it works. This is a fact that is chilling given the tremendous amount of power those involved, from judges to conservators, guardian ad litems, and others within it, have.
Though there have recently been several documentaries, including an episode of Dirty Money on Netflix, the overwhelming majority of seniors and their families don’t get to detail the often shocking stories of families torn apart, exorbitant legal fees, and other conditions most would find distressing.
One of the biggest challenges to the publication of these stories is that few people are willing, and even fewer are able, to succinctly share their stories. Most cases involve long and arduous tales of family dysfunction, sibling in-fighting, a lot of he-said-she-said, and contradicting stories that go in circles and are time-consuming to unravel. These hard-to-follow stories and oftentimes too wild to be true stories are facts that predators within the system take advantage of. Courts and court-ordered appointees claim they’re “protecting” the wards even when said ward has family that can and should be their protectors.
As I stated above, Mrs. B’s case was different in that she was willing and able to tell her story to anyone who would listen. I watched from afar after my series began, and I moved on to other cases as story after story came out on Mrs. B, knowing she was making a difference with each one. She was adamant that what happened to her was wrong—an opinion upheld by the Alabama State Supreme Court. The court’s ruling gives me hope for others in the same situation if only their cases make it to them.
The last time I spoke to Mrs. B was a brief moment on the day the court ruled in favor of her on her case. I told her that day that I had spoken to someone close to a family going through similar circumstances who intended to use the ruling on her case as a defense in theirs, as they too were denied legal representation. She told me she was glad to know that her efforts would be making a difference and gave me a message to tell them not to give up.
I promised her that even though her case was over (or so I thought), I would continue investigating and reporting contested court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships as I had been doing since the issue was brought to my attention. This series has never just been about Mrs. B. It has been about the broken system and is meant to shine a light on the system that has for far too long operated in the dark. Mrs. B’s case provided a strong foundation for fighting for all those who have found themselves and their loved ones in similar circumstances and the policy changes that can prevent future cases like theirs from happening again.
Though most wards are under such strict lockdowns I’ve been unable to speak to them directly, I will always remember the sounds of exasperation in Mrs. B’s voice as she described feeling betrayed by those who she ultimately fought until the day she died.
Mrs. B is the third person who has passed away as I’ve been investigating and reporting their case or their family’s efforts. Many will remember the family involved in another case I reported on, that of the father whose daughter was fighting to get him out of a conservatorship that she described as going against his wishes. He passed away several months ago. Again, my heart ached when his daughter texted me the news.
I was in the early stages of investigating another case when that ward passed away. Each call or text telling me about the death of someone whose rights were seemingly denied, whose assets potentially stolen, or family weaknesses exploited, has had a profound impact on me personally. I’ve gotten to know the stories of those involved and know that some simple policy changes could change a great deal.
So that’s what today’s story is, a promise to you, the reader, to continue telling the stories of those who find themselves in these circumstances and highlight the policy implications of them. Here are a few places lawmakers can start:
- No one should have to go through this system alone. Every potential ward needs both a guardian ad litem and an attorney of their own to speak on their behalf.
- We’re discussing the rights and freedom of Americans. Every court proceeding needs to be recorded either by a professional transcriptionist or by audio recording. It is unconscionable that courts are operating without proper record-keeping in a day and age where digital records are so easy to keep.
- Required training for guardian ad litems charged with advocating for a senior or potential ward
- More transparency and accountability. I’ve been seeking records from Jefferson County, AL, related to their two court-ordered conservators for 8 months now. That is unacceptable.
- No ward should be able to be isolated from their loved ones.
- No court should allow a ward’s finances to be managed in secret by skirting the law and using a power of attorney to hide their actions (more on this in my next piece).
It’s notable that in February of 2003, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which at the time included Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, held a hearing on the case of Mollie Orshansky (aka Mrs. Poverty for her role as the economist who shaped and defined the way the U.S. government describes poverty). Throughout that hearing, lawmaker after lawmaker discussed the growing system and ways it was being exploited. That is the type of discussion we need to have in the Alabama legislature this year! Join me in calling for it. Together we can make sure that those who need to be protected are while making sure everyone in the system has their needs met, their voice heard, and their rights protected.