EDITOR’S NOTE: Recently, a woman I’ll call “Janet” met with me for more than six hours to discuss two court cases in which she’s involved. One is a Family Court case involving the welfare of a child, while the other is a Probate Court case involving the welfare of that child’s great-grandmother. Names and case-specific personal details in the stories below have been changed in order to protect the identities of the innocent people involved.
Unlike other middle-age Americans who find themselves caring for both young children and elderly parents, Janet’s status as a member of the “sandwich generation” is unique. Rather than simply care for her almost-seven-year-old granddaughter and her octogenarian mother at the same time, the 40-something woman who once earned six-figure income as manager of a high-end fitness center/spa in a posh St. Louis suburb finds herself fighting for both of them in separate cases at the St. Louis County (Mo.) Courthouse. After years of legal wrangling, she now finds herself on the verge of bankruptcy, having thrown everything she had into the effort to save the two most important people in her life.
“Sometimes I feel like that movie is my life,” said Janet, referring to “Changeling,” a 2008 film in which a grief-stricken mother takes on the Los Angeles Police Department to her own detriment after it stubbornly tries to pass off an obvious impostor as her missing child. Unlike the movie, however, Janet’s child isn’t missing; instead, her granddaughter is on the verge of being taken from her family permanently. In addition, her mother has, for the most part, already been removed from her life.
SAVING A GRANDDAUGHTER
Janet’s most-pressing concern is the fight to keep her granddaughter, a little girl for whom she’s been the primary caregiver during most of early life, from being placed up for adoption — possibly by total strangers. In less than 10 days, a court hearing could determine whether or not she succeeds in the fight that begun in earnest 15 months ago.
Almost five years ago, Janet convinced her daughter and the biological father of her granddaughter to sign a document that, after being notarized and filed with the court, would have given her legal guardianship of her granddaughter. While the document was notarized, Janet never filed it. Why? Because she was holding out hope that her daughter would change her ways. But she didn’t.
During the early morning hours of a Thursday during the summer of 2010, police officers and paramedics responded to news of a person lying on the ground in front of an apartment building in the St. Louis suburb of University City. Upon arrival, they found a woman unresponsive and barely breathing. It was Janet’s daughter, the 26-year-old mother of a beautiful little girl. She had overdosed on heroin.
The overdose occurred on one of those rare occasions when Janet was not watching her granddaughter and the little girl was being cared for by someone else inside her mother’s home.
As soon as Janet found out about the overdose, she picked up her granddaughter and took her home, fully expecting she would soon become the girl’s full-time guardian until her daughter was able to care for her again after completing rehab.
A hearing was held two days later and, not surprisingly, Janet’s drug-addicted daughter was angry at her mom and didn’t want her child to go with Janet, the responsible parent against whom she liked to lash out, especially when she was in trouble. And she was in trouble.
Perhaps due to Janet’s daughter’s outbursts during the hearing, custody of Janet’s granddaughter went to another woman, the grandmother of Janet’s daughter’s other child by a different father — a woman acting as a foster parent who is not a blood relative of Janet’s granddaughter. This occurred despite the fact that the judge had allowed Janet to intervene early in the case and said placement of the child with her was NOT contrary to the best interest of the child.
The emergency petition to take the granddaughter into state care was falsified and not warranted, Janet said, since she had had her granddaughter for several days after her daughter’s overdose and had ensured she was safe and well-cared for.
By granting temporary custody of Janet’s granddaughter to someone other than a blood relative (i.e., Janet), Children’s Division appears to have violated Missouri law (Section 210.305, RSMo) which requires the agency to give preference and first consideration for foster care placement to grandparents of a child.
I used the word, “appears,” because there is a loophole in the law that allows Children’s Division to avoid placing a child with a grandparent if they deem such placement as being “contrary to the welfare of the child.”
Children’s Division workers who opt for the loophole must, according to the statute, document in writing why the child was not placed with grandparent. In this case, however, they did not conduct a home study or background check on Janet and, as a result, had nothing upon which to base their decision. Apparently, they simply decided that her grandparent status didn’t matter. Falsified reports by Children’s Division workers and the deputy juvenile officer assigned to the case followed to hinder Janet’s efforts to save her granddaughter.
Three months after the little girl was placed with the foster parent, the Family Court judge in charge of the case said Janet should have immediate access to her granddaughter if she passed a drug test. Interestingly, she passed the drug test as well as five other blood and hair-follicle tests during the past year. Inexplicably, the foster parent never had to take a blood test. In addition, Janet had to undergo a psychological evaluation which the foster parent did not.
Despite the judge’s directive and the fact that Janet passed the drug and psych test hurdles, access to her granddaughter continued to be blocked by the foster parent. No birthdays. No holidays. And, for the first time ever, no Christmas morning celebration. As a result, Janet’s granddaughter’s life changed dramatically.
Since being taken from Janet, the trips the gifted child enjoyed with her — to the zoo, theater and symphony — have not happened. Her other regular activities, including swimming lessons, dance, music and art classes, ended as well.
Over the summer, the little girl spent more than 12 hours a day in daycare, arriving at 6 a.m. and leaving at 6 p.m. daily. This fall, despite objections from Janet and from officials at the girl’s school, the judge allowed her to miss several weeks of school so she could travel with the foster parent to a far-away state.
SAVING A MOTHER
Least urgent to Janet, but only because her mother understands the other legal battle in which Janet is involved, is the fight to free her mother from the confines of a St. Louis-area retirement facility where she is being held against her will.
Janet’s octogenarian mother was in bed sleeping the day in August 2009 when she was removed from her private residence in the nice suburban St. Louis neighborhood where she had lived for more than 50 years, never to return.
Out to dinner at the time her mother was taken, Janet said she had spoken to her earlier that night — around 7 p.m. — and learned from her mother that she was tired from working in the yard all day and had gone to bed early. Everything was fine — or so they thought.
When Janet returned to the home where she lived with her mother — at her mother’s request — around 11 p.m., she found her mother missing. The woman who had taught swim lessons to babies three days a week at the YMCA, attended church regularly and tended to an array of growing things in her well-manicured yard was gone. A Hollywood movie-style nightmare had begun.
Actually, the nightmare began more than a year earlier when Janet’s brother, who had not been involved with either her or their mother for more than two decades, coaxed his mother out of her home and made her sign legal papers in an apparent effort to steal her sizable assets.
A banker friend advised Janet and her mother that they should seek to have Janet installed as her mother’s guardian via the courts to prevent Janet’s brother from doing any more harm to her mother. Following that advice, they took the matter to court and thought they were headed in the right direction. But they were wrong.
Instead of obtaining full legal guardianship, Janet was granted limited guardianship by a judge and a St. Louis County official who was named conservator of Janet’s mother’s estate. The springing durable power of attorney, a legal document that was to “spring” into effect at the point Janet’s mother lost capacity, was disregarded by the court even though it had been prepared by an attorney, signed by Janet’s mother (fully competent at the time) and registered with the office of the recorder of deeds.
Now, fast-forward back to August 2009.
After claiming Janet’s mother was somehow incapable of living on her own, Janet explained, the county official had her removed her from her home and placed in a restricted-access care facility under heavy sedation for three months. In addition, the official prevented Janet from being able to visit her — or even know where she had been taken.
Janet said he left her threatening voice mail messages that said, “You can make it easy on yourself or hard on yourself. You have to deed your half of the house over to me.”
Next, she said, he liquidated her mother’s assets, which included — but were not limited to — a half-million-dollar home in one of the St. Louis area’s finest neighborhoods, its contents (for only $100), life insurance policies and investments.
Janet said her mother has now needlessly used nearly half of the term covered by her long-term care insurance — one of the few assets of her mother that the county official/conservator has not sold — and will likely be tossed out of the home at the end of that term and placed in a low-end Medicaid bed somewhere else. So much for her plans to stay in her own home as long as possible an use the policy when it was needed.
Today, Janet’s mother lives in a closet-size room at another retirement retirement facility where she continues to be kept in a locked-down memory care unit, unable to go beyond certain locked-door boundaries without an escort. The only person allowed to take her on outings away from the home, Janet said, is the son who set into motion all of the events that resulted in her being confined against her will in the first place.
Does Janet’s mother really belong in a locked-down unit at a nursing home? Not according to a St. Louis-area physician who is among the nation’s leading researchers on the subject of dementia.
In a “To whom it may concern” letter written 10 days before Janet’s mother was removed from her home, the physician who had cared for the woman for 17 months wrote the following about her condition:
(She) was diagnosed with dementia secondary to chronic stress exacerbated by her involvement with her son. Since being separate from her son, she has demonstrated significant improvement in her cognitive function. At this time, (she) has the mental capacity to determine where she would prefer to live.
Nursing home placement at this time would not be in the best interest of (Janet’s mother) with respect to her mental and physical health.
The court, however, ignored the expert physician’s opinion and sided with the public administrator, leaving Janet’s mother trapped against her will in the locked-down unit of a retirement home.
With few options remaining available to her, Janet told me she expects to file federal lawsuits during the next two weeks against the judges and other officials involved in both cases. Unfortunately, she’s not likely to get far, because two things are working against her:
First, the Missouri House has impeached only two Missouri judges since the Civil War era, and both resigned before they could be removed, according to the Missouri Courts web site; and
Second, Guardian Ad Litems, the individuals — usually attorneys — charged with looking out for the interests of children in court cases, are accountable only to the judges who appoint them.
The time for Family Court reform is now.
For more news about justice denied, read other posts in my series, Family Court Nightmares.
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