Ohio guardianship abuse

The Lost Years
Steph Greegor
November 13, 2008
The Other Paper (Columbus, OH)
http://www.theotherpaper.com/articles/2008/11/13/cover_story/doc491c419ab0f5b461366350.txt
Milous Keith was a blue-collar worker for the city of Columbus for 30 years. A Korean War veteran, he amassed an estate worth nearly $1 million through rental properties and savings, a nest egg upon which he’d hoped to retire comfortably. Never did he think his golden years would be the darkest of his life.

A call to Adult Protective Services landed Keith in a locked-down Alzheimer’s ward for nearly two years. Keith said he never saw a courtroom, never talked to a single judge, never spent time with his appointed guardian.

In less than 15 minutes, Keith lost 22 months of his life and most of his fortune to, what some say, is an overwrought probate court system. Others say it’s a failure by family to take care of their own.

In either case, it’s something that could happen to anyone.

Now, three years later, Milous Keith wants answers. Who was responsible for whittling away his $750,000 fortune to less than $150,000, according to court documents, not to mention his civil rights?

“I’m mad as hell,” said Keith, who now, at 79, lives in an assisted living apartment at Traditions at Mill Run Retirement Homes in Hilliard, where he’s allowed to come and go as he pleases within the facility, though he does wear an alarm that alerts staff when he leaves the building. “The position that I’m in, I can’t get a fair deal.”

Keith started displaying the signs of dementia in 2002, said his sister, Etta Brown, who lives in California. He wasn’t incompetent, she said, just a little forgetful. Like many aging adults, Keith needed a little help from a caretaker since his family was unable to do it. Most elderly adults do need care, said Keith’s attorney Tim Ryan, but the idea of probate court is to find the least restrictive environment, he said. In this case, Keith went straight to an Alzheimer’s ward at Sunrise at Bexley.

“He was initially found incompetent,” said Ryan. “You can peel back a few layers and wonder how did he end up with that designation? Because he was ultimately found competent.”

In talking to Keith, it’s clear he has trouble remembering—it took him a moment to remember that he has a civil lawsuit pending, which was filed in April, 2007, against the firm Wiles, Boyle Burkholder & Bringardner, two of the firm’s attorneys—Daniel Bringardner and Jim Hughes, a Republican who lost his bid for the 22nd district of the Ohio House to Democrat John Patrick Carney—and Jack Gibbs, Jr.

The suit claims the defendants acted together to deny him his rights and misrepresented information to the court, such as the value of his home, according to the lawsuit.

Ryan said Keith wants someone to hear the case and decide if the court acted in good faith; Ryan is hoping for a little more.

“I want his estate be reconstituted,” said Keith’s attorney, “and the return of properties that should not have been taken, or at least the equivalent value. Financially, I want him to be more secure.”

“After having served in Korea, after towing the line, he should be treated right,” Ryan added. “And to that extent, who’s next? I can put people on notice that this shouldn’t happen again.”

It was Brown, Keith’s sister, who started suggesting her brother might need a little help after a 2002 visit.

“I went out there and I thought that Milous was not doing too well,” said Brown. “We started talking about him needing assistance.”

Brown said Keith was competent, but that he needed help with things like taking medication, help with his rental properties, help with his home and shopping trips.

Keith’s sons were unable to care for him due to personal problems of their own, and Brown, living in California, wasn’t able to attend to her brother, leaving Keith with only a nephew to care for him. But the nephew had his own difficulties fulfilling the responsibilities, Brown said. She said the nephew recommended a professional caretaker come in and care for Keith, and the family agreed to it.

According to court documents, Brown filed complaints with Adult Protective Services that the caretaker was controlling Keith’s behaviors and his finances. Brown claims the caregiver was after Keith for his money, and when Keith refused to marry her, she called Adult Protective Services to report Keith as incompetent. But the referral that Probate Judge Larry Belskis got from APS was in regard to the caretaker’s actions, not Keith’s competency.

“The referral from APS noted that there was exploitation and abuse,” said Belskis. “If someone is being exploited, we can’t let them sit there.”

The court acted quickly, Belskis said, first granting an emergency guardianship to one of the defendants, attorney Daniel Bringardner in March, then granting a permanent guardianship to Bringardner’s partner, Jim Hughes, in April.

It’s common practice for attorneys and law firms to apply to be placed on a guardianship list through probate court. Most are accepted, and paid a small amount by the courts. Most defendants, however, are indigent.

Hughes was appointed the permanent guardian of Keith, due to what the court called, “clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Keith was incompetent,” as determined by a court-appointed psychiatrist.

No doctors are named as defendants in Keith’s lawsuit.

“We always try to contact family first. In this case, for years there was no family involved in it whatsoever,” said Belskis. “We make our judgments based on professional evaluations. We’re trying to protect that person and do what’s in their best interest.”

Keith believes they were after his money. Brown says no one realized her brother may have stopped taking—or been deprived—of his medication when he was evaluated for competency.

Keith was assigned to the Alzheimer’s ward at Sunrise at Bexley in the spring of 2004, after the court awarded guardianship to Hughes and Bringardner.

But when APS personnel went to Keith’s home to escort him to the nursing home, Keith, confused by what was happening, brandished an unloaded rifle and threatened anyone who tried to take him.

“He’s an old Korean war veteran—he solves his problems with a rifle,” said Brown. “If he didn’t have a gun, he knows 20 ways to kill you with his hands.”

Keith called his sister in California to find out what was happening, but she said she had few answers herself, having received no information from the court about what was happening to her brother.

“The information I got from them was that the intention of the temporary guardianship was to figure out how to best take care of Milous and put him somewhere where he would be safe,” said Brown. “But they just transferred him to a permanent guardianship and that was it.”

According to Judge Belskis, the law only requires notification of proceedings to family members within the state of Ohio, but as a courtesy, the court will sometimes notify family outside the state. In this case, Keith’s son, Monroe, was notified, but Brown said he was unable to care for Keith.

APS called Hilliard police, who placed Keith in handcuffs and escorted him to Sunrise.

Ryan said this is the point where the probate court should have more thoroughly evaluated the information being handed to them, instead of rubber stamping the paperwork. Belskis said based on the professional evaluations he received, he acted within Keith’s best interests.

Over the next two years, Brown acted on behalf of her brother, filing several motions to get him out of the nursing home, but was unable to do so after a second evaluation, in October of 2005, again deemed Keith incompetent.

But Ryan said even the staff at Sunrise began to believe Keith was more competent than the court was alleging, and Sunrise staff wrote letters to Bringardner and Hughes saying that Keith was in too restrictive of an environment. But, according to Ryan, Hughes related the rifle story to Sunrise staff members, who then decided Keith’s placement was justified.

In November, 2005, Hughes withdrew his guardianship—no explanation was given in the court documents, and Hughes did not return calls for this story—and in December, Keith was moved to Traditions at Mill Run. Two months later, Keith was found competent.

“This process unfolded right in front of the probate court,” said Ryan. “The overseer just assumed that everyone was acting in good faith. Did anyone act contrary to the evidence? I don’t know. Whether the court did its job is one of the questions.”

Judge Belskis takes offense at the idea that the probate court system didn’t properly oversee the case.

“There are hundreds of attorneys that we appoint, thousands of guardians, and many, many are family members,” said Belskis.

“Unfortunately, in our current society, the family typically doesn’t want anything to do with the ward. That’s one of the biggest failures—is family to take care of the person. Often times, people are too busy or just don’t have the desire to take care of their own. That makes it difficult. We become the default caretaker and we look for people to take care of them.”

In this case, the court had to act quickly, said Belskis. Once Keith was assigned a guardian to care for him, it was his guardian’s responsibility to act in his best interest.

In this case, Ryan said it was reasonable for Hughes to sell off Keith’s assets to earn him enough cash to live on in a nursing home. But Ryan alleges that within that duty, Hughes mishandled the assets, selling Keith’s home well below market value, emptying the contents of safe deposit boxes without cataloguing their contents, and mishandling savings bonds and other cash assets, according to the lawsuit.

“If the court had seen all the documents, it may have been different. That’s part of the problem with the system. The court doesn’t know what’s happening— it’s an overloaded system,” said Ryan. “We’re simply dealing with a system that needs some work.”

Belskis agrees that the probate system is overloaded with guardianship cases.

“We have an aging society and often time there’s not enough assistance to help these people,” said Belskis. “Last year we had over 7,000 guardianships (in Franklin County.) We just do not have enough lawyers to make those guardianships. So we do what we have to do.”

According to Julia Nack, volunteer guardian director with the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging and member of the Ohio Supreme Court subcommittee on adult guardianship, an overloaded system is exactly the problem.

“The overload means that there is no funding for that guardianship in Ohio,” said Nack. “There’s a lack of resources and funding, both for guardians and the court itself to be able to monitor as well as they want to.”

Monitoring is one of the issues Ryan points to with the Keith case, saying that if the judge had read every piece of documentation, perhaps he could have stopped the sale of Keith’s assets long before his $1 million fortune was whittled down to less than $130,000.

Nack, however, supports Belskis on this issue, saying, “How can he possibly monitor that without funding?”

Nack said she, along with probate court judges and attorneys from across Ohio, are making recommendations to the Supreme Court that will focus on creative funding to assist the probate court in reviewing and investigating cases of competency and abuse, as well as mandate education for guardians and attorneys, and find ways to fund a public guardian for indigent persons.

“There is a need for this type of intervention,” said Nack. “And the need is now.”

Though the Milous Keith story is tragic, it has spearheaded efforts to reform the system. Belskis already has acted on that need, he said, by providing training seminars for attorneys and guardians at least twice over the last year.

Keith’s attorneys are in the midst of getting depositions from attorneys and other parties to the case to find the answers that Keith seeks. Until then, Keith spends his days with his good friends at Traditions, talking and laughing—sometimes grocery shopping.

“I don’t know how they handled my assets. I don’t know the details. There’s so much I don’t know what happened to,” said Keith.

“It’s not easy to talk about. I just want an answer.”

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