ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The three Darnell siblings spoke openly to the Journal about their family’s six-year relationship with the New Mexico guardianship system. They each spoke of the helplessness they felt watching their mother, Blair Darnell, lose both her independence and her dignity. They said they want to warn New Mexicans that it could happen to them. They want the system to be made better, more compassionate and responsive to the elder ward’s loved ones so entire families can stay together until their parent’s final days.
All the family members who spoke to the Journal said they felt as though they had nowhere to turn after their aging parent entered the guardian/conservatorship system. They each said they wrote lengthy complaints to the offices of the Albuquerque district attorney, the attorney general and/or the governor, to no avail.
Some are warned away from the system because of its problems.
One retired Albuquerque attorney told the Journal that a family member had, in his words, “kidnapped” his now-deceased mother, overmedicated her and forged documents to take control of her estate. He says he sought advice from a lawyer with expertise in the elder guardian arena and as a professional courtesy was warned away from asking for the court’s help.
He said he went to then-District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who he said told him the case was “too complicated” to pursue. He then turned to the state’s top law enforcement officer. The office of Attorney General Hector Balderas told this attorney in a letter that, “Our jurisdiction extends only to Medicaid provider billing fraud and abuse, neglect or exploitation of residents within facilities.”
But the letter went on to say the AG’s Office is “aware of the number of exploitation cases involving family members that occur outside the facility-exploitation context and agree that it is an issue of importance.”
In cases in which a guardian is appointed, the judge ultimately is responsible for the appointees’ behavior. But families say that in their estimation, the judges they dealt with failed to conduct the follow-up needed.
Mary Darnell says she kept fighting what she saw as an unfair system, despite her battle with breast cancer along the way, because in quiet conversations toward the end of her mother’s life, Blair instructed her “not to let the bastards win.”
“My mother told me, ‘Get these laws changed so this doesn’t happen to another family,’ ” Mary said. “And I intend to do that.”