Where There's a Will ...
As an attorney who practices before the Probate Court and has represented, from time to time, both Bertha Joung (including in this case) and Debra Dolch, I'm astonished at how little your reporter learned about conservatorship proceedings in San Francisco County before writing "Guardian Angels?" (Bay View, Nov. 8).

Allow me to correct at least a few of the misrepresentations contained in George Cothran's article:

1. "The elderly are being tended by uncertified, often untrained people who have more than ample opportunity to abuse their position and even rip off their clients." The truth of the matter is that most private professional conservators are highly trained, either as social workers or financial managers, or both. To use the example of two conservators mentioned in your article, Bertha Joung is a licensed clinical social worker with a master's degree in social work and long experience as a hospital-based psychiatric social worker before becoming a private professional conservator. Debra Dolch is an experienced certified public accountant whose staff includes trained social workers for the case management of elderly persons. As to opportunities to rip off their clients, all conservators are bonded for the full amount of a conservatee's assets under their management, and must regularly account to the Probate Court for every penny received or spent from the conservatee's funds.

2. "With conservatorship fees so attractive and unregulated -- they can range from $65 an hour to $150 an hour." The facts are that all fees of conservators are paid only upon petition to, and prior approval by, the Probate Court. In San Francisco County, the highest fee currently allowed to even the most experienced private professional conservators is $65 per hour, from which they must pay for the costs of their offices, support staffs, and constant travel throughout the city.

3. "The main problem is there are few regulations" [governing conservatorships for incapacitated persons]. My volume of Probate Code has 294 pages of statutes (Secs. 1400 through 3925) governing conservatorship proceedings, to which must be added an additional 65 pages of local probate rules for San Francisco County alone.

4. [Conservators receive] "little scrutiny ... from probate courts." The truth of the matter is that San Francisco's Probate Court has a superb professional staff of 11 persons, most of whose time is devoted precisely to the supervision and scrutiny of conservators for incapacitated persons. Within that system a regular conservator is appointed only after an extensive field investigation by the court's own investigative staff, which involves a personal meeting with the proposed conservatee to ascertain his/her own wishes and to offer the person court-appointed legal counsel (at public expense if other funds are not available). In addition, family members and other interested parties typically are interviewed, as well as the elder's personal physician, along with the proposed conservator. The confidential report of that investigation (10 to 20 pages in length) goes to the Probate Court to be weighed by the judge together with other evidence presented at the hearing on the appointment. A new investigation of each conservatorship is required not less often than every two years.

In sum, your article wholly misunderstands San Francisco's system for the protection of incapacitated people, which is widely regarded as the model for both California and the nation. That's an injustice, I believe, to some of the most conscientious (and hardest-working) judicial officers and professional staff I have ever encountered in our court system, and to the entire community of California private professional conservators. Within the latter group, Bertha Joung, whom you criticize in your article, has over many years earned a reputation as one of San Francisco's most skillful conservators.

The Probate Department of the Superior Court of California can take care of itself, of course. It is a grave public harm, however, for your newspaper to frighten the elderly population of San Francisco County with fantasies about a heartless and irresponsible conservatorship system which, in fact, is designed and operated for their protection should they lose the capacity to manage their own affairs.

Gerald S. Witherspoon
San Francisco

George Cothran replies: Witherspoon's comments are a matter of his own interpretation of the story.

Skating the Issue
I was very moved by "A Matter of Seconds" (Bay View, Nov. 1) by Paul Critz. The story in itself is so sad and the fact that no one will be held accountable is disturbing. Generally, the article was well-written and the story had to be told. But another disturbing part of the article, and the main reason I am writing, is the statement: "'You can't imagine what that was like,' says the short-haired Kemsey, a 31-year-old animal rights activist and free-lance music critic who looks more like a skate punk than a widower." What is that supposed to mean? Am I to assume that just because someone has a flannel shirt, short hair, and a chain wallet that they could not possibly be married, or worse, a widower? I feel as though this is very prejudiced of the writer and I am personally offended.

Skateboarders/snowboarders have always had to deal with prejudices, and that one statement was reaffirming this to all of the "clueless" persons out there with closed minds that just because people look a certain way they are punks.

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