Thursday, May 17, 2007

When Families Quarrel - Elders Suffer

A photo on the day police raided her daughter Suzette Gebhhard's home to take custody of her. By Tracy BretonJournal Staff Writer Sisters Feuding Over Ailing Mother’s Fate

Two grown sisters are enmeshed in a bitter tug-of-war over what is in the best interest of their elderly mother and who should have control of her money.

The fight between Suzette Gebhard, 60, and Francine Ardito, 54, has spilled into Rhode Island’s criminal courts. Before it’s resolved, it will probably cost the sisters and their mother more than $100,000.

According to a psychiatrist, the war between the sisters has exacted a big psychological toll on their mother, a woman who’s now 90 and suffers from dementia.

This “is a sick, toxic situation,” says Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney.

In 1995, Eifrig established a trust, which she would amend three times. The last amendment, made in 2004, gives Ardito $200,000 more than Gebhard.
On Sept. 2, 2004, Eifrig wrote a notarized memo — now part of the Superior Court record — explaining why she had already given more money to her younger daughter.

Her older daughter, she wrote, “has not done any work for me to earn” the $50,000 she got. She’d refused to come help her at her apartment when Ardito had gone on two weeks’ vacation that year — even though “I would pay her” to come.

According to court testimony, Eifrig was in the habit of removing all of her financial papers from her apartment — and giving them to Ardito — when Gebhard came to visit. But since Gebhard had arrived early with no advance notice, the documents were in the apartment.

Upon discovering the papers, Gebhard became “irate,” Ardito would later testify, and went to a store to photocopy them.

When Ardito went to check on her mother that Monday, no one was there. The closets were nearly empty. She tried repeatedly to call her sister but couldn’t contact her.

AFTER ARRIVING IN Rhode Island, Gebhard took her mother to a lawyer in Portsmouth, Kenneth Dolbashian, to change Eifrig’s will and trust. Eifrig asked him to remove her younger daughter as trustee of her trust and to replace her with her daughter Suzette. Dolbashian says he felt that Eifrig was being influenced by Gebhard, and, after calling Ardito, he says he refused to make any changes.

The mother and daughter went to another lawyer in Middletown, who prepared a new trust agreement. The new agreement made Gebhard co-trustee of her mother’s trust and by far the largest beneficiary. Under the new trust, Ardito was to receive just $5,000.

“Francine has absolutely abused everything,” said Gebhard, who holds a doctorate in social work. She said she was just “trying to be a decent daughter” in helping her mother “escape to Rhode Island.”

On Aug. 8, Gibney began what would turn into a three-day hearing. Mastronardi accused Gebhard of “kidnapping” her mother. When Eifrig was called as a witness, she became very confused.

“I’ve heard enough,” Gibney said, cutting off further questioning of the elderly witness. “I’ve heard all I need to hear … This is a sick, toxic situation,” the judge declared. “This is shameful.”

After a month of being stonewalled by Gebhard, Cuculo called the state Department of Elderly Affairs. A staff member told her she’d already been to the house and that Eifrig had come to the door and had told her she was fine, that she was happy living where she was.

Cuculo got the Elderly Affairs worker to go back to the house with her. They asked a Warren police officer to go with them. When they got there, they saw Gebhard’s car in the driveway and heard a TV on, but no one would open the door.

Neither Gebhard nor her mother appeared for the contempt hearing on Oct. 3. Gibney issued orders which would allow a sheriff or police officer to arrest Gebhard and her mother and bring them before the court if they were found in public.

Cuculo called the sheriff’s department and “they told me they weren’t set up to do any type of surveillance.”

“I became so frustrated with the system,” she said, that “I decided that the only way I’ll get this woman is to have a stakeout or move the case into the criminal sector, where we could break down the door.”

Cuculo went back to her contact at the Department of Elderly Affairs and asked for advice. Could this be a case of elder abuse that the attorney general’s office might investigate? she asked.

The department put her in touch with prosecutors in the Elder Abuse Unit of the Rhode Island attorney general’s office

On Jan. 26, the prosecutor who heads that unit contacted the Warren Police Department to tell them that Suzette Gebhard was refusing to allow people into her home at 7 Stonegate Rd., where she was secreting her elderly mother.

Gebhard refused to open up. The police told Gebhard that if she didn’t open the door, she’d be arrested. She still wouldn’t let anyone in. A short time later, an arrest warrant was issued. Firefighters were summoned and they knocked down the door.

The police handcuffed Gebhard and took her to court for arraignment. She spent the night at the ACI.

Inside the house, Cuculo found Eifrig sitting on her bed, dressed in slacks and a sweater. The bed was unmade. The room was a mess, as was much of the rest of the house. Eifrig was upset. She refused to put on her coat. She was not going to leave the house, she said.

Cuculo told the EMTs to pick up Eifrig and cart her out of the house on the chair-type gurney they had brought with them. Wrapped in a blanket, Laurette Eifrig was taken by ambulance to Roger Williams Medical Center to be checked out

Gibney ordered an immediate mental evaluation for Eifrig.
ON FEB. 6, Dr. Andrew S. Rosenzweig performed a mental competency examination on Eifrig.
He diagnosed her with “moderate dementia due to Alzheimer’s Disease.” He said she needed a guardian.

Boren has complained to Gibney that Gebhard has persisted in bad-mouthing her sister. The judge issued a stern warning: if this happens one more time, she will not be allowed to see her mother at all. story abridged read it all here >>

Elder Justice is Costly ! it is fortunate the younger sister and her family could muster up the resources to rescue her mother, How many more afflicted victims are out there that can not afford the $100,000 legal cost - otherwise they will not have been able to see their loved ones again ? or recoup what was taken from them ? Superior Court Judge Alice B Gibney is right "This is a sick, toxic and shameful situation for a family to have to subject their elders to."

"The way that society doesn't value these people is reflected in how we have
been investigating and prosecuting these cases," said Deputy Prosecutor Page
As a society it is time we asked ourselves, " Is it practical to requires legal fees often in the tens of thousands, for our elders to receive protection when they needed it most ?

Clara's and Eifrig's case only represent 4% to 15% of cases ever reported. What about the other 85% to 96% cases of elder financial abuse that are never reported ? Do we have a responsibility to protect those elders ?

In many cases, the courts could play a critical role in protecting the current victim or other victims from abuse, compensating the victim for damages, enabling victims to recoup financial losses they've suffered, or punishing the perpetrator.

Many of these cases may not be financially viable for the victim or the lawyer. A victim may not be able to pay for a lawyer's services because the victim has never had much money or because the victim's life savings were lost as a result of the exploitation that would be the subject of the lawsuit. See 'The Role of Courts in Elder Abuse Cases ' posted on March 9Th 2007.

The slow pace and customary delays of the legal process are particularly onerous to older persons in general and to those who have been abused in particular.

Your help is needed to persuade legislators to do something about this problem. Please share this information with family members, friends, neighbors, legislators, and other acquaintances.

Captioning, Italics , bold by blogmaster.

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