BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. And so, the opioid epidemic continues along, punctuated by investigations and revelations that make noise and bring attention to the forces at play. With every new report, we learn a little more, from the extent of the crisis, to the decisions that caused it, to the players profiting from it. This is what journalism does, opening up new areas of inquiry that beget new questions and new possibilities for intervention.
But how does it begin? What happens when you discover a story that doesn't fall into a well-established narrative, that requires data that hasn't been collected, where history’s as yet unwritten? One such story arrived this month when The New Yorker published “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights” by staff writer Rachel Aviv.
RACHEL AVIV: Rudy and Rennie North are in their mid-‘70s. They’ve been living alone. They have a few hours of help each day but they're fine, and their daughter lives 10 miles away. In 2013, a guardian named April Parks knocked on their door. They let her in and she said, I have a court order. I'm removing you from your home and, if you don't follow my order, we’re gonna call the police. So they were feeling vulnerable and disoriented and just alarmed by the situation and they followed her orders and found themselves in an assisted living facility for the next two years.
BOB GARFIELD: The Norths were caught in a system that's extremely difficult to navigate, both for those who find themselves ensnared within and for the researchers and journalists, like Aviv, trying to make sense of it.
RACHEL AVIV: Guardianship is a system for people who’ve become incompetent due to disability or age to essentially outsource all their decisions, as well as constitutional rights, to a third party, whether it is a family member or a professional. The guardian can control where you live, who you associate with, what kind of medical treatments you receive and what happens to your assets.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, some senior Americans do require care of a third party. Either they don't have families or their families haven't the wherewithal to assist.
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: But the story that you wrote shows that that system, that safety net, has been utterly perverted.
RACHEL AVIV: It varies widely state by state and even county by county. And then there are many counties where’s there’s just no oversight. The guardians appear frequently in the courtroom and the judges seem to have just gotten into the habit of rubberstamping their petitions. It’s just a great area for exploitation.
In Clark County, Nevada, there was a history going back almost 30 years of guardians sort of taking control of people's lives and really alienating them from family and making decisions that the wards themselves were desperately trying to undo. But many of the guardians were selling the homes of their wards, often against the wishes of the wards.
BOB GARFIELD: It is astonishingly easy for third parties not only to be appointed by the courts to take over the affairs of the elderly but to actually generate the cases. They actually seek out people to eventually find themselves guardians of.
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] In some of the counties that I looked at, and particularly in Clark County, it seemed as if these guardians were actively looking for middle-class or upper-middle-class elderly people. So one of the guardians, April Parks, she would essentially advertise with lawyers who worked with the elderly and with rehab facilities and, as she put it, she was trying to, quote, “generate client leads.”
And the idea was that then when a social worker at this rehab facility found a patient who was being a little bit belligerent or maybe wasn't taking his medications or wasn't paying his bills, then rather than the doctor having to communicate with the patient, they communicate with this third-party guardian who then makes all the medical decisions for this patient. So it’s almost a way, also, for doctors to kind of streamline their job by not actually communicating with their patients.
BOB GARFIELD: And, once again, the cases you looked at were those not where the children had abandoned their parents. They were ready, willing and able to assist their parents and, in fact, in some cases, showed up to the parents’ home to find out that they had just vanished into this system of court-appointed eldercare.
RACHEL AVIV: Yeah. The family members would often come in to court and make a case for why they should be the guardian or for why their parents should not have a guardian at all. The family members were often disparaged in court records as someone who was just out for their parents’ money, as if it would be so horrible for a child to expect that maybe they would get an inheritance.
BOB GARFIELD: And the guardians appointed by the court who were deemed better caretakers of the seniors in question than the seniors’ own families --
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: -- but their training consisted of what?
RACHEL AVIV: The only requirement was that they not have committed a felony and they had not gone bankrupt in five years. There’s no educational requirement.
BOB GARFIELD: Now you were, as a reporter, kind of lucky because Clark County, which has an ever-growing population of seniors, also does not seal its court records on these cases. So you were both at Ground Zero and at a place that's unusually well documented. How did you get onto the story, to begin with?
RACHEL AVIV: You know, I have always been interested in Family Court, in general. Because Family Court records are so often sealed, my sense is that there’s a lot of corruption within Family Court and there’s a lot of arbitrary decisions being made that can't be scrutinized. I was actually intrigued by the Alex Jones custody case, not just in --
BOB GARFIELD: Is this the Alex Jones conspiracy theory?
RACHEL AVIV: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Infowars Alex Jones?
RACHEL AVIV: Yes, [LAUGHS] yes. I had read some of the transcripts and I was struck by the tremendous power that had been given to the guardian ad litem in that case to decide which parent was fit. I began looking into what kind of power is given to these guardians and what happens when a guardian makes a bad decision, and what kept coming up was complaints by family members about the guardians for their elderly parents or siblings. These were blog posts and sort of dinky websites devoted to the disappearance of a family member who had now been put into some sort of institution. And the complaints were so similar from so many different people in different parts of the country that I started to think there has to be some truth to this.
BOB GARFIELD: You quickly discovered that there aren't really advocacy organizations or clearinghouses or certainly government data collected on the dispositions of elderly wards of various jurisdictions. It's a universe that exists kind of undetected.
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] I’ve seen coverage in local papers but it's almost always focused on the individual county and a couple of stories in that county because there's really no way to extrapolate into the larger national picture. All the scholars I spoke to said that there's no studies on his, there's no data, and we don't even know how many guardianships there are in the country, let alone how many guardianships go awry in the process.
I wanted to know when private guardianship really emerged as a viable career, and there was just nothing. I would ask the experts in the field and they had extremely different answers. One of the scholars who has studied guardianship (her name is Pamela Teaster) told me that there is so little data that she has been using newspaper accounts to sort of look at the frequency of guardian exploitation and guardian corruption, because these anecdotal accounts are really the best she can do.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a local woman, Terry Williams, who had spent a number of years looking into these very matters and, you know, had a pretty good trove of documentation.
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Terry Williams was in court and she overheard a man begging the judge to have visitation with his mother, and she was thinking, you know, in what world does an adult child need to bag a judge to have visitation with his elderly mother? And, at that point, she went to the records room of the courthouse and began researching all of the cases of the guardian in question, whose name was Jared Shafer. And she just kept noticing this consistent pattern, which was that the guardian would petition for guardianship through an ex parte order, which provides an exception to the rule that both parties need to be notified of an argument before a judge. So these were secret petitions and secret orders. These people would become wards of the court and they actually didn't know it until it had already happened.
BOB GARFIELD: This guy, Jared Shafer, who is he?
RACHEL AVIV: He had been both a public administrator and a public guardian since the late ‘70s. In 2001, he branched off and started his own private guardianship business. But during those many years in public office, he had lobbied and consulted with lawmakers to loosen the oversight required of guardians when they petition the court to take over a person's life.
BOB GARFIELD: What did he have to say to explain this system and his role in it?
RACHEL AVIV: Well, the whole time I was writing this article I was feeling anxious about the fact that I was essentially accusing him of crimes, and I kept thinking about what was gonna happen when I sort of listed everything I was saying in the article and he responded to it. But he just categorically refused to engage with me in any way. I mean, and maybe that is a legal strategy but he just did not respond to any efforts to get in touch with him, and I never heard from him, I mean not even just a simple “no comment,” nothing.
BOB GARFIELD: What you describe in your piece has the look of not just an abuse system but a racket.
RACHEL AVIV: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: Have there been any criminal consequences for the principals in these nightmares that you’re retelling?
RACHEL AVIV: April Parks, who’s a newer guardian and a younger guardian who was essentially following the model of Jared Shafer, she was indicted and she's going to go to trial this spring. But the indictment is focused on the fact that, you know, she would say she was with someone for two hours and charge them for two hours of her time but actually was only with them for 15 minutes. So it's relatively superficial, as far as the charges go. Jared Shafer, whose conduct traces back to decades, has, has been untouched, at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: We discussed that one of the problems for you as a reporter is that there was no preexisting data set on the incidence of these problems and no scholarship, and so on. Do you have any reason to think that from this point forward that the attention will now grow?
RACHEL AVIV: People are becoming more aware of elder abuse as this discrete phenomenon, just as child abuse sort of came to be a viable construct that there are now, you know, all sorts of laws regulating. And there are laws regulating elder abuse but I don't think there's been as much attention to the ways in which it's unique from other forms of abuse.
One of the scholars that I spoke with who does study this said that she was told studying guardianship was a tenure-ender, like she, she wouldn’t tenure if this is what she was studying. So I think, for whatever reason, it’s been seen as kind of an intellectually uninteresting field of the law. And I think as people realize how easily distorted these laws are, maybe there will be more reason to be studying them.
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BOB GARFIELD: Rachel, thank you very much.
RACHEL AVIV: Thank you, thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Rachel Aviv is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her recent piece is titled, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.”
We reached out to both April Parks and Jared Shafer but we did not hear back.
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That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Monique Laborde, and our show was edited this week by Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.
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