The marvelous Betty Winstanley died recently, just shy of her 98th birthday in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She died in the captivity of a court-sanctioned guardianship that haunted her final years. Her life never should have ended this way.
Winstanley was an elegant, eloquent, remarkable woman. In an era when women were undereducated, Betty became a trained chemist. She was married for 72 years to her loving and supportive husband, and was the mother of his three children. After Dr. Robert Winstanley died in 2014, Betty wanted to leave their retirement home in Pennsylvania and find another place in Maryland closer to her two youngest children. The estranged oldest son protested and took the matter to the courtroom of Judge Jay Hoberg. Hoberg spent almost no time before declaring Betty to be “incapacitated.” He appointed strangers to take control of all of Betty’s life decisions. The legal battle, which lasted nearly four years, ate away at the $1.9 million nest egg the Winstanleys had worked so hard to amass. Betty hated every minute she was under court control.
Betty’s was the first guardianship story I ever wrote about, back in early 2016. I almost couldn’t believe that a judge could declare an American citizen “incapacitated” and a “ward of the court” without so much as having a meaningful conversation with the elder person. I soon learned it was a frequent occurrence.
In an instant, the elder loses their civil rights and all ability to make their own decisions. Suddenly, they have no say on how their money is spent, where they live, which doctors or friends they can see, and once the court decides the family is “dysfunctional,” fee-earning outsiders who make their living in this oftentimes questionable profession, take control. If family members question a guardian’s actions, the court appointee can ban them from seeing their loved ones simply because they “upset” the elder.
Since telling readers about Betty’s plight, I have written, literally, tens of thousands of words exposing this shameful practice. Several other journalists have also written extensively on this court-sanctioned exploitation of senior citizens. Yet it still takes place in courtrooms across the country with a concentration on sunny, retirement-friendly states like Florida, California, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Horrifying cases of court-ordered guardians mistreating their wards and siphoning off massive amounts of estate money have also been reported in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama, Oregon, Maine, Michigan and many more states. Honestly, I could write a horror story a day about what is happening to elderly Americans victimized by the very system that is supposed to protect them.
How much power do these guardians have and how bad does it get? Take the recent case of Rebecca Fierle, a Central Florida guardian with more than 100 wards who placed “do not resuscitate” orders on clients who, allegedly, never consented. Those wards apparently had no idea that their assisted living residence or hospital would not be allowed to save their life in an emergency. In May, Navy veteran Steven Stryker’s friends and family begged the probate judge to lift his unauthorized DNR. Stryker, 75, died a few days later while doctors and nurses in a Tampa hospital helplessly stood by.
Now, in a rare move, Circuit Court Judge Janet Thorpe has ordered Fierle removed from all her cases. Judge Thorpe found Fierle had “abused her powers” with all those DNRs and never told the court she was taking Medicaid payments in addition to her hourly guardian fees. What happens next to Fierle is anybody’s guess. Involuntary manslaughter charges, maybe?
That’s how bad it gets. But still, local law enforcement, district attorneys and state attorneys general say they cannot act because it is a civil, not a criminal, matter once a probate judge has ruled. Holding a senior against their will and fraudulently taking their money sounds criminal to me.
Following Stryker’s death, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised he will “vigorously” investigate the state’s guardianship system. Voters there have heard it all before. Florida, with the largest percentage of those over 65, has been the scene of decades of complaints about corrupt guardians, yet not one unethical guardian has ever been prosecuted. Governors, state legislators and members of Congress promise new, meaningful laws, but they never materialize.
Betty Winstanley, a woman with whom I had many fascinating conversations, needed hearing aids but, in my opinion, was not incapacitated. Steven Stryker, who moved to Florida to take care of his elderly parents, had trouble swallowing, but he wasn’t incapacitated, either, according to his family and friends. The judges and guardians who failed to act in their best interests should be ashamed. Betty, Steven and the countless other seniors caught up in this demeaning system deserve better.
You know why judges, lawyers, guardians and those who operate residential senior facilities get away with mistreating seniors this way? Because so few are ever prosecuted. It is way past time to change that.