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The relatively new, unregulated field of conservators leaves the elderly at risk

Wednesday, Nov 8 1995
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The elderly loner upstairs got Janet O'Sorio thinking about her future. What would happen to her if she made it to her 80s, frail and senile and with no family to take care of her?

"She was just like me," O'Sorio says of her landlord, Evelyn Peini. "I saw myself like that. I'm from New York. I have no family here. That could be me. So I took care of her."

O'Sorio's altruism led her to discover the rarely examined world of professional conservators in San Francisco, a small cadre of approximately 30 people who manage the emotional, financial, and physical affairs of elderly people who have more money than friends or relatives. What O'Sorio has learned has left her enraged and worried: 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.

O'Sorio began to take care of Peini in 1987 soon after she moved into the 84-year-old's two-unit house in Cole Valley. She took her landlord shopping and to the doctor, dentist, and hairdresser. She sat with her, played cards, and watched television. "We became like mother and daughter," O'Sorio says.

Then she noticed that Peini was writing checks to her attorney in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. The attorney said that the money was being spent on the immigration problems of a professional caretaker who was going to tend to Peini's needs. But O'Sorio didn't buy that.

The district attorney said there was no evidence that the attorney had committed fraud. Still, the incident, coupled with Peini's encroaching Alzheimer's, made O'Sorio realize that her elderly landlord, whose estate was worth more than $1 million, was vulnerable and in need of more care than she could give. She placed a few phone calls, even ringing up her Cole Valley neighbor Supervisor Sue Bierman.

Before O'Sorio could say boo, a professional conservator she had talked to had gone to court and won the legal right to oversee the elderly woman's estate.

Like most people, O'Sorio had never heard of such a thing as a professional conservator. But she would soon learn all about them: how easily and completely they can assume control of an elderly person's life, how little scrutiny they receive from probate courts, and how poorly they can treat their charges without anyone knowing.

Peini's new conservator, Bertha Joung, visited once every six months, O'Sorio says. The rest of the time, caretakers hired by Joung were supposed to provide care. O'Sorio says they did everything but. When O'Sorio visited, she would find the old woman in her bedroom while the caretakers were entertaining friends.

"I heard them," O'Sorio says. Peini was not bathed. Her hair was not combed, and she was never taken out of the house. "She stank," O'Sorio says.

Peini was not taken to the dentist for treatment of a gum disease. The caretakers put diapers on the old woman to save them the work of taking her to the bathroom. Moreover, O'Sorio claims, property began to disappear: china, crystal, antique clothing, an antique sewing machine, and cash Peini kept in a drawer. "I told [Peini] about the [missing] sewing machine and she said, 'Oh my, my mother's machine,' " O'Sorio says.

When O'Sorio complained directly to Joung she was told to butt out, O'Sorio says. Joung, who now controlled all of Peini's property, started eviction proceedings against O'Sorio. Peini wrote a note saying she didn't want O'Sorio evicted, but by that time Joung had had Peini declared incompetent by the court and her word meant nothing. Joung was in control.

O'Sorio fought back with a tenant attorney, Marc Janowitz, and this year won a settlement from Joung whereby she could stay in her apartment. Eventually, O'Sorio and a distant cousin of Peini's asked the court to remove Joung, who voluntarily resigned to avoid litigation aimed at making her pay for the missing property, Joung's attorney says. Joung did not return phone calls requesting an interview.

Joung's attorney, Paul Utrecht, denies that Joung and the caretakers did not provide adequate care. He says Peini refused to go to the doctor or to leave the house. He does admit, however, that one of the caretakers stole property from Peini. "She was fired," Utrecht says.

Peini has a new temporary conservator, Debra Dolch, whom attorneys and others say is one of the best in the business. But O'Sorio doesn't trust Dolch: Her experience has soured her on all conservators, trust and estate attorneys, and others who plow the fields of elder law. No surprise. Probate courts have enough cracks and holes when it comes to conservatorships to engender such distrust. Put simply, the field is a gold mine for abuse.

The main problem is that there are few regulations. First, consider: The people to care for in the system are elderly, isolated from family, mostly senile, and more often well off, if not stinking rich. Second, the people who do the caring are asked to pass only the most minimal standards before taking over the affairs of the near-dead.

With conservatorship fees so attractive and unregulated -- they can range from $65 to $150 an hour -- and with no cap on the number of clients, conservators often take on more cases than they can handle, increasing the chances of substandard care.

In San Francisco, which has one of the largest populations of single, elderly people per capita, the potential for misconduct is hardly academic.

Professional conservators are a curious creation of modern life. Ten years ago, the profession did not exist. By and large, family members ministered to the needs of their elderly relatives, and most conservators were connected by blood or marriage to their charges. But the dissolution of family ties has created a market for pros.

Former nurses, social workers, and attorneys have filled the gap between the elderly and children who can't be bothered returning the care they once received. In the last two or three years, attorneys and conservators say, the field has exploded. And regulation has yet to catch up. "It's a scandal waiting to happen," says San Francisco Public Guardian Ricardo Hernandez.

The Public Guardian's Office oversees the needs of about 300 elderly people who are too poor to attract professional conservators. The agency also takes on cases where the professional conservator has been removed for misconduct. So Hernandez and his troops are a good gauge of how much abuse exists in the system.

Hernandez says that one-third of the 300-person caseload handled by the public guardian was turned over to his office after the court removed a professional conservator. That's 100 elderly people who weren't getting the right care.

Hernandez says the misconduct ranges from benign neglect -- forgetting to pay bills and making lousy investments -- to fraud. The court recently removed four cases from a local conservator named David Downie and turned them over to the public guardian, Hernandez says. Some of the cases are still under review. But court records show that Downie has been accused of failing to pay bills and that his wife was seen wearing pearls belonging to one of his charges. Additionally, the records show, several Chinese masterpiece paintings that belonged to the same client were found in Downie's house.

"Downie has taken liberty of my assets," stated Jui Chuang Chen in court records. "I'm rather upset that he took the law into his own hands and victimized me in the process." Chen died this year.

Downie has told the court that he didn't pay the bills because of a health problem and that his clients gave or loaned him the disputed property. Downie could not be reached for comment.

Hernandez says he receives 10 to 15 such serious cases each year.
He and others say the state needs to set up professional standards for conservators, much like those required of Certified Public Accountants. "Anyone can be a conservator," he says. "There are no licensing or certification requirements at all."

So far, efforts by conservators and trust attorneys who want to professionalize the field have fallen to legislative neglect.

Currently, all anyone has to do to become a conservator is pass a criminal-record check run by the probate court through the Department of Justice. After an initial review by court investigators and another review one year later, the court only monitors the conservators every two years, plenty of time for an elderly person to be abused financially or physically. The only other way for the court to find out about misdeeds is if someone complains. But the very nature of the field -- conservators wouldn't be in the picture if there were relatives or friends around to complain -- renders that control point moot.

And if you get chased out of one county, just go round the bend to the next and no one will be the wiser. California counties have no way of sharing conservatorship records. "People always find ways," says Julita V. de Chavez, the probate court supervisor. "They change their names."

None of this is to say that all conservators are bad. In fact, even reform-minded trust attorneys say the majority are conscientious. It's just that the potential for harm and fraud is so great. "My old boss used to tell me not to talk to the press because he was afraid of what would happen if everyone knew how the system operated," says Theresa Taken, an attorney with the Public Guardian's Office.

Perhaps the best argument for reform came in an interview with the top watchdog over San Francisco conservators, Probate Judge Isabella H. Grant. Asked if Downie is still practicing as a conservator in San Francisco, even after her court removed him from four conservatorships, she says, "I don't know.

About The Author

George Cothran

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