Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Families Go to Battle in Probate Court, Only to Leave Without Anything

Families Go to Battle in Probate Court, Only to Leave Without Anything

Families Go to Battle in Probate Court, Only to Leave Without Anything
Fred Harper
In October 2007, Willie Jo Mills of Houston suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body. A widow with two daughters and a son, the 80-year-old woman was prescribed a variety of pain medications, but doctors couldn’t find the right cocktail.

Six months later, Mills’s son Larry filed an application with the Harris County Probate Court to become his mom’s legal guardian. Mills’s youngest daughter, Sherry Johnston, who wasn’t getting along with Larry, contested her brother’s guardianship request. With the case at a standstill, Judge Christine Riddle Butts, one of the newest of Harris County’s four elected probate judges, selected the third-party guardians David R. Dexel, a Houston-based attorney, and Ginger Lott, a certified guardian in Texas, as Mills’s legal caretakers.
Johnston says that’s when the family’s five-year horror began.
According to documents filed with the Harris County Probate Court, Johnston alleges her mother was miserable and overmedicated and shriveled to 89 pounds while under the care of the court-appointed guardians. “She looked like a concentration camp victim,” says Johnston, who adds that she was barred from visiting her mother at Silverado Kingwood Memory Care Community after she complained about the lack of attention paid to her mom.
Following her complaint to the court, Johnston was allowed to visit with her mother. In the next six months, she put 30 pounds on her mother, but Willie Jo eventually moved to hospice and died on September 27, 2014, at the age of 86. Johnston thinks the pitiful treatment by the third-party guardians is part of the reason her mother stopped talking the last four months of her life.
“[Probate Court] isn’t about protection or appointing someone to act in the best interest of a person. It’s about ownership of a human being and all their assets. It’s starting to look like they’re running a business rather than taking care of elderly people,” says Debby Valdez, president of the San Antonio-based Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly.
By law, a person in the clutches of a guardianship loses his basic rights such as the ability to drive, spend money, marry, choose a place to live and make medical decisions for himself. Instead, the bill of rights is transferred to the appointed guardian.
A professional caretaker through a county guardianship program, or a certified — or even uncertified — guardian such as a private lawyer can carry out a court-appointed guardianship, which dissolves a previous power of attorney that a relative may have obtained. (The Texas Judicial Branch Certification Commission requires the completion of a four-hour course to become a certified guardian. Until recently, it had been only three hours.)
Before he became the legal guardian for his mother, Olga, Gregory DeFrancesco, a retired Houston Police Department sergeant, had been fighting a grueling guardianship battle in Harris County probate court.
In July 2012, Judge Loyd Wright of Harris County Probate Court No. 1 appointed Dexel to take care of the now 88-year-old woman’s affairs. The court became involved because Gregory and his sister Donna couldn’t agree on specifics regarding their mother’s care (or anything else, for that matter).

According to a complaint filed by Donna with the State Bar of Texas’s Chief Disciplinary Council, after Dexel sold Olga’s house, he hawked her belongings in a poorly run sale. Sentimental possessions, like their grandmother’s rocking chair and a piece of jewelry that contained their father’s ashes, were sold before Gregory and Donna had a chance to run over and rescue the items.
The barely legible, hand-scrawled itemized receipt looks as if a six-year-old kid had run the sale. Purchased items include “crystol plate” for $7, “3 oval” for $5 and “sieve,” “foil,” “napkin hold” and “SS gravy body” for $1 apiece. One of the few items that didn’t sell was an X-ray of Olga’s shoulder, which Gregory found with a $3 price sticker slapped on it, according to Donna’s complaint with the State Bar of Texas.
When Gregory confronted Dexel, who didn’t respond to a Houston Press interview request, about the X-ray that also listed Olga’s date of birth and Social Security number, “He told me that they tried to sell it so that parents could teach their children how to play doctor.”
A month after Gregory usurped Dexel as his mother’s guardian, Donna’s State Bar of Texas complaint alleges that Dexel withdrew $16,340.18 from Olga’s Wells Fargo account (because he was still listed as a co-signer) and made out a cashier’s check payable to himself, according to a bank statement and check image examined by the Press. The withdrawal took Olga’s account down to a big fat $0.
“The whole system is rigged. It’s one big scam,” Gregory says about Harris County probate court, which critics allege is a corrupt, freewheeling operation that allows judges’ favorite appointees, who are also close friends and campaign donors, to bleed the estates of the helpless and vulnerable. Naysayers of court-appointed guardians believe that attorneys prey on family drama to charge astronomical fees and that judges aren’t doing enough to stop them.

Even though probate law is a complicated field that requires specialized attorneys, only 20 of the judges in Texas’s 254 counties have legal-studies degrees and professional law experience, according to Judge Mike Wood, who’s in charge of Harris County Probate Court No. 2. “The rest are farmers, car dealers and insurance salesmen, so probate law is written to be run by non-lawyers,” says Wood. Travis County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman, one of Texas’s presiding state statutory probate judges, adds, “Non-lawyer judges sometimes don’t seem to know or understand their duties and obligations” because of a lack of resources in rural areas.
Unlike probate courts out in the sticks, Harris County’s four probate judges and Herman think that statutory probate courts in Texas’s resource-rich metropolitan areas — which include Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Galveston, Harris, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Travis counties — are well-oiled machines. Herman, who has been a point person for probate legislation since 1985, says Texas’s revamping of probate statutes in 1993 brought kudos from other states.
“The system is geared to help people,” says Wright. “Sometimes things aren’t fixable when there’s dysfunction and family animosity.”
Herman couldn’t agree more. “The driver of the expense is a family feud and the children who are arguing about who should be the guardian. There’s not a single judge that likes these fights. It’s wasting the family’s money,” says Herman, who adds, “I don’t think judges are sitting around trying to be corrupt.”
However, state lawmakers thought something was awry during the 2015 Texas legislative session because Governor Greg Abbott signed yet another try at legislation designed to help families in guardianship proceedings.
“We need some sort of oversight of these court appointees, because right now, I don’t know of any,” says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who sponsored or co-sponsored several guardianship bills.
Harris County’s four probate judges and Travis County’s Herman aren’t thrilled with many of the new laws, which force more accountability on the judges and go into effect September 1.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht says there’s one bulletproof way to avoid potential probate court messes. During a hearing for the eventually inked House Bill 39, which will provide families with less-restrictive alternatives to guardianships, Zaffirini asked Hecht for probate court and guardianship avoidance techniques.
His response: Get along with your family members.
Good luck with that.
*****

A lifelong sibling rivalry between Olga DeFrancesco’s daughter Donna (right) and her son Gregory forced the 88-year-old woman into a guardianship in Harris County Probate Court.
A lifelong sibling rivalry between Olga DeFrancesco’s daughter Donna (right) and her son Gregory forced the 88-year-old woman into a guardianship in Harris County Probate Court.
Daniel Kramer
For some families, the physical and emotional consequences to ailing parents from court-appointed caretakers’ decisions are worse than the money drain.
Shortly after Dexel sent Olga DeFrancesco to a nursing home, she broke her hand and cracked her pelvis after falling several times. According to the complaint filed with the State Bar of Texas’s Disciplinary Council, Gregory and Donna say that Dexel and some of the nursing home’s staff ignored their mother’s injuries for weeks and that they couldn’t get any information about her condition because Dexel cut off their visitation privileges. Gregory says, “How can I carry a gun but not take care of my mother?”
Probate court deals with some of society’s most vulnerable people, such as widows, orphans, the clinically insane and the person who’s far gone on drugs or alcohol. Along with administering the estates of the deceased, Texas’s probate courts establish guardianships for the incapacitated and minors when the next of kin are unable or unwilling to care for, or incapable of caring for, their physically or mentally diminished family members.

Once a probate judge signs an order that a ward (the term probate court uses for people in guardianships) is incapacitated, that person is pretty much helpless. “In fact, they lose more rights than somebody who goes to prison,” Tarrant County Probate Court Judge Steve King said during a recent Al Jazeera America investigation into guardianship abuses in Texas.
“They become civilly dead in the eyes of the law. There are too many cases where there’s a knock on the door and they never go home again,” says Valdez, who adds that once a ward is whisked into a guardianship, it’s nearly impossible for him to get out. She says families are blindsided in probate court by the head-spinning legalese and probate statutes.
According to May 2015 Texas Office of Court Administration figures provided to the Press by Herman’s staff, there are 51,646 Texas citizens locked into guardianships, with 8,206 coming from Harris County and 4,188 in Dallas County. Overall, according to the Texas Judicial Council, the number of Texans in guardianships has increased by 60 percent since 2011.
Most probate cases are unremarkable, with near-penniless estates or some beat-up furniture at stake. Wood tells the Press that fees in low-level heirships and guardianships total less than $1,000.
But when it’s brother versus brother or sister versus brother and there’s money involved, watch out.
“Probate court exists because of one of the seven deadly sins: greed,” says Wood. In other words, when a surviving parent becomes unable to care for himself, family members can turn into backstabbing devil people with dollar signs for eyes.
Even if a parent isn’t incapacitated, a predatory son or daughter — or a money-hungry sister-in-law — will do anything possible to trick poor old Mom or Dad into a guardianship. And that plan sometimes backfires.
In July 2014, Rodney Elliott of Dallas allegedly “tricked” his mother, Patricia Elliott, into a nursing home, according to Dallas County Probate Court documents. The now 84-year-old woman, whose estate was valued at approximately $900,000, says in court documents that she thought her “son has put her here for her money.” (Patricia didn’t return the Press’s phone messages. We also tried to reach Rodney through his lawyers at the Plano-based Lori A. Leu & Associates, but we never heard back.)

According to legal documents, Dallas County Probate Court Judge Brenda Thompson assigned a guardian ad litem, who’s often an attorney who’s supposed to protect a proposed ward’s best interests, and an attorney ad litem, who’s a licensed lawyer for a proposed ward. In nine months, lawyers racked up more than $38,000 in fees, which were paid out of Patricia’s estate.
Additionally, Thompson appointed the Dallas-based in-home health-care provider The Senior Source as Patricia’s permanent guardian, according to an April 2015 court filing. The pricey service continues to deplete the woman’s life savings as well as her children’s future inheritances.
“The third parties go over the kids’ heads and come after the money,” says Gene Robinson, Patricia’s neighbor of 25 years, who was the widow’s durable power of attorney until the guardianship application rendered his legal powers moot. “She’s disheartened, depressed and traumatized that her family did this to her.”
In recent years, critics allege, a growing cottage industry of attorneys who lack guardianship acumen have forced elderly people into nursing homes and drained families of their estates. A number of these private lawyers conduct business through post-office box mailing addresses and generic email domains such as Yahoo!
“Instead of making a decision, [a probate judge] appoints all of these attorneys to represent the proposed ward, and the financial incentive is to the court-appointed attorneys and guardians, who then spend a lot of dollars out of the elderly person’s money,” says Valdez. “In this business, everybody protects everybody. There’s too much cronyism and nepotism going on with these appointments.”
Butts, who’s in charge of Harris County Probate Court No. 4, admits that she chooses some attorneys who contributed money to her election campaigns, but says that’s because she built a network of trustworthy professionals while in private law practice from 1996 to 2010.
“I generally know the people [who contributed campaign funds], but I don’t specifically remember the amounts,” says Butts. “I know the attorneys very well professionally, not personally.” According to a review of campaign finance reports, Dexel donated to Butts’s 2014 re-election campaign and to Wright’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns. Harris County’s four probate judges, who serve four-year terms, take home an annual salary of at least $144,000 each.

Butts adds that she sometimes has no choice but to appoint a guardian whom she knows because there’s only a minuscule pool of qualified candidates. “In Harris County, the probate bar is very small and the number of people willing to serve is very small,” says Butts. “We’re so deeply invested in the care of a relative, but there are some things that a layperson might not understand. Sometimes people have a hard time accepting that death is a long, hard process.”
*****
Elizabeth Mason Bray alleges her mother, Lily Mason, was duped into signing away her legal rights by an estranged family member.
Elizabeth Mason Bray alleges her mother, Lily Mason, was duped into signing away her legal rights by an estranged family member.
Daniel Kramer
Lily May Mason is a persnickety 92-year-old woman who survived heavy World War II bombing of her hometown of Bristol, England. During the war, she met the Liberty, Texas-born Leonard Mason, a U.S. Army soldier who family members say received a bronze star for his role in the Normandy invasion. When Leonard asked for Lily’s hand, he bribed Lily’s parents with eggs and butter.
After the war, the couple settled in the Houston area, where Leonard worked as a chemical engineer. When Leonard died in 1992, he left the entire $1.5 million estate to Lily and not to their daughters, Elizabeth Mason Bray and Linda Mason Phelan, who are estranged from one another.

According to Harris County Probate Court documents, Lily managed just fine on her own until 2013, when Baylor College of Medicine doctors diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s. In 2014, Lily officially became incapacitated in the eyes of medical professionals and probate court officials, and all hell broke loose between the sisters, says Elizabeth. (Linda didn’t return a voice message from the Press.)
After a Texas A&M football game last fall, Linda took their mother to the office of Carl Pickett, an attorney and the mayor of Liberty. Linda and Pickett, who Elizabeth says are lifelong friends who trust one another, allegedly coaxed a confused Lily into signing a paper that removed Lily’s power of attorney and medical power of attorney from Elizabeth and disqualified her as a guardian. “Because of Lily’s impaired eyesight and hearing,” writes Elizabeth in court documents, “I became very concerned that she was not properly informed of her actions or the impact of her signature on these documents.”
And just like that, her rights were turned over to Judge Rory Olsen and Harris County Probate Court No. 3.
“An allegation can change everything in an elderly person’s life,” says Valdez, the San Antonio-based disability rights advocate. “Probate court doesn’t rule on clear and convincing evidence where a decision is made based on if it’s better with the family or a third-party guardian. The person who’s going to lose their rights isn’t in the courtroom 90 percent of the time.”
“It’s a court that was established to handle the affairs of the dead, and this is exactly what happens in guardianships,” adds Valdez. “People become property once state law strips them of all their civil, constitutional and human rights, all in the guise of protection.”
The vast jurisdictions of Texas’s statutory probate courts encompass decedents’ estates (including wills, heirships and the appointment of executors and administrators), guardianships and trusts; the Harris County courts of Olsen and Butts are also in the mental-health business when they commit someone to an institution and force that person to take medication. Though the four Harris County courts are lumped under the same umbrella, they’re independent entities with their own staffs and sometimes their own procedures.

Valdez thinks that an already troubled system began to nosedive in 2005 when the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee called for an emergency overhaul of Texas Adult Protective Services. In response, state lawmakers significantly altered probate codes, but instead of improving, according to Valdez, things got worse. Guardianship professionals were able to manipulate the laws to profit financially from sick, elderly people, says Valdez.
At the same time, Valdez says, the “lucrative business” of assisted-living facilities began to explode in order to house the country’s aging population. As of 2013, there were an estimated 44.7 million Americans aged 65 and older living in this country, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
Currently, medical professionals are granted wide latitude in determining incapacitation, which is defined under Chapter XIII, Section 601 of the Texas Probate Code as the state of “an adult individual who, because of a physical or mental condition, is substantially unable to provide food, clothing, or shelter for himself or herself, to care for the individual’s own physical health, or to manage the individual’s own financial affairs.”
In a majority of Texas’s counties with statutory probate courts, a standardized checklist determines if a person is incapacitated. But in El Paso County, a ward only needs to be found to have “diminished capacity” before landing in guardianship, making the subjective test even more of a potential crapshoot. Despite the definition of an incapacitated person in the probate code, there is not a state law that forces Texas probate courts to use that definition in their usual proceedings.
San Antonio-based author J. Kristi Hood has blogged about probate court issues in Texas for six years, and recently published Probate Pirates, a finger-pointing collection of news articles, resources and commentary. Hood says the impetus for the 280-page paperback was an all-out war with her brother.
“A family member had taken advantage of my 86-year-old father. The police and probate court would want to know,” says Hood. “Probate court did not want to help. Probate court enabled my father’s abuser at every turn.”
The Illinois-based grassroots National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse documents nationwide cases of alleged guardianship abuse, including a 2012 incident involving a guardian of a Washington, D.C. woman who reportedly locked the refrigerator on the 91-year-old and would allow her to eat only in the presence of the third-party caretaker.

In 2009, reports WFTS-TV ABC in Tampa Bay, an Indianapolis man checked himself into the hospital after falling ill during a trip to Sarasota, Florida. Upon hearing the news, family members made a beeline from Indianapolis to pick up the man, a Holocaust survivor, to bring him home.
By the time they arrived, a Florida court had appointed a guardian, issued a “no contact order” and barred the family from seeing the man for three weeks. It took a year for court officials to grant the man’s release from the guardianship program, and the affair erased more than a quarter of a million dollars of the man’s savings.
One of the most egregious cases of guardianship abuse occurred in Ohio when a Franklin County grand jury indicted Columbus attorney Paul S. Kormanik on three felony charges of corruption and theft under Ohio’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
According to legal documents, Kormanik, a court-appointed guardian for more than 400 people, swiped nearly $50,000 from four of his wards in five years. After Robert Hart died in 2012, Kormanik drained the dead man’s account of $34,000 and deposited the dough into his personal checking account. Kormanik, who bragged to The Columbus Dispatch in 2014 that he was likely the guardian with the most wards in the country, faces up to four and a half years in prison.
*****

In August 2012, shortly after their father died, Donna DeFrancesco says, her brother Gregory filed an application behind her back to become their mother’s legal guardian.
“I got a call from the lawyer asking me if I knew that I was supposed to appear in court,” says Donna, who contested the guardianship application and hired an attorney. The court battle between the siblings grew longer — and more expensive — as each paid a torrent of attorneys’ fees to fight the other.

In April 2013, Wright appointed an independent third-party guardian because Gregory and Donna weren’t letting go of each other’s throats.
Wright went with David Dexel. As Olga’s caretaker from April 2013 to September 2014, Dexel depleted the old woman’s savings of $99,600, according to allegations in a complaint the DeFrancescos filed with the State Bar of Texas.
In July 2013, Harris County Probate Court records show that Dexel sent an email explaining that he was going on vacation for a few weeks, and Gregory says Dexel charged his mother $175 to send that email. “I don’t know anyone at HPD who would do that,” says Gregory. Butts, who works with Dexel, isn’t buying that the attorney, who practices wills, trusts and probate law in Houston, would do such a thing. “I know David Dexel. He’s a good man,” says Butts. “I’d be very surprised if that was true.”
According to the siblings, Dexel made visiting their mother in the assisted-living facility a miserable experience. After Donna brought food and a heating pad to her mom at Brookdale Cy-Fair Senior Living (formerly Emeritus at Cy Fair), privileges allowed by the nursing home, Dexel severely capped her visitation hours, says Donna.
In an October 9, 2013, letter acquired by the Press, Dexel forbids Donna to talk to her mom on the phone and stipulates that “visits should occur in the public areas and not in her room unless the private sitter I have on duty is present.”
“This current isolation of Olga, whether intentional or not, is unacceptable and beyond your authority as a guardian,” Donna’s attorney, Denyse Ward, writes to Dexel. “It is my understanding that there have been no incidents between my client and her brother that warrant such limitations. If we cannot reach a more workable solution, I will have no choice but to seek court involvement.”
Dexel eventually caved. A camera-phone video shows Donna and Olga hugging and kissing each other at a Carrabba’s after seeing each other for the first time in weeks.
Afterward, Donna and Gregory took a timeout from their brotherly and sisterly hate and curbed the bad blood. On September 11, 2014, after a prolonged fight in probate court, Gregory was appointed successor guardian for his mother.

Valdez thinks family guardians are held to higher standards than are court-appointed guardians. For instance, if a family guardian misses the annual deadline for reporting the ward’s assets and financial statements, the guardianship can be revoked. Valdez says the same heavy hand doesn’t apply to probate court appointees. “I’ve never seen a judge protect a patient from a court-appointed attorney,” she says.
In the case of Robert Litoff, a Bexar County probate judge overturned a jury’s decision that originally favored Litoff, and forced the 70-year-old San Antonio man to fork over an immense chunk of his money to the losing side.
In October 2010, Litoff went from breaking a hip to a psychiatric hospital on orders from Kelly Cross, a temporary guardian appointed by the Bexar County probate courts. Though Litoff passed all psychiatric exams, court officials declared him incapacitated. Soon thereafter, according to legal documents, Cross, who became a Bexar County probate judge this year, created a $1,509,652 management trust account that promptly lost $112,028 on bad investments.
Litoff eventually found Dallas-based attorney Robert Wilson because Litoff says nobody in San Antonio would take his case. (Wilson didn’t respond to the Press’s request for comment.) In September 2011, a Bexar County jury determined that Litoff wasn’t incapacitated and awarded zilch to Cross’s attorney, Christopher Heinrichs.
However, Heinrichs filed a motion to disregard the findings. Bexar County Probate Court Judge Polly Jackson Spencer overturned the jury’s decision regarding Litoff’s payment of attorney fees.
In the end, Heinrichs was awarded $52,000. Litoff says that Spencer’s order would require him to pay Heinrichs $20,000 to appeal the ruling and another $20,000 if the case made it to the Texas Supreme Court.
“Making me pay lawyers who wanted to get me locked up for the rest of my life after they lost the case is like making an innocent man pay the DA’s office after he was exonerated,” says Litoff, who says that he lost close to $400,000 under the Bexar County Probate Court-initiated guardianship.
“If those lawyers know that they will get paid even if they lose, it encourages those lawyers to take any case in which they can get money from a senior citizen or similar person, regardless of the validity of the case.”



*****

Harris County Probate Court Judge Christine Butts disagrees with critics who say that court-appointed attorneys are draining families of their future inheritances and the judges aren’t doing enough to curb the so-called abuse.
Harris County Probate Court Judge Christine Butts disagrees with critics who say that court-appointed attorneys are draining families of their future inheritances and the judges aren’t doing enough to curb the so-called abuse.
Daniel Kramer
The Press interviewed each of Harris County’s four probate judges, all Republicans whose terms run from January 1 through December 31, 2018. While Butts and Wright were forthcoming, Wood frequently defaulted to off-the-record commentary. When first contacted by the Press, Olsen, whom we profiled more than a decade ago (“Judging Rory,” Margaret Downing, October 31, 2002), insisted on an exclusive off-the-record chat.
There was one common thread in each of the interviews: All four judges assert that their courts — and Texas’s probate-court system as a whole — are doing a great job.
For more than two hours in early July, the Press visited Judge Wood’s offices, which are perched on the sixth floor of the Harris County Civil Courthouse on Caroline Street in downtown Houston. Wood, sporting suspenders and a stark white-gray, meticulously trimmed mustache, denies that he favors certain attorneys in his appointments. He says his appointee list changes often and numbers “upwards of 200” people.

Instead, Wood, who has been on the bench since August 1993, which makes him the most senior member of Harris County’s probate courts, says that family vendettas are the ultimate spender of a ward’s money.
“The kids have kept it all subdued while Mom and Dad were still alive. When the last one goes, the long knives come out. If there’s a lot of money, there are a lot of lawyers in Harris County that will take the money and fight. There are so many wealthy people in Harris County,” says Wood, an equally prickly, amiable and dark personality.
Butts says that one out of every 20 probate cases in her court are contested guardianships and normally include a son or daughter arguing over who should take care of a sick parent. “Whenever there’s a contested case, there’s at least three lawyers,” and that shoots the cost through the roof, says Travis County Judge Guy Herman. A Harris County Probate Court document shows that a court-appointed guardian can collect between $165 and $350 an hour, depending on the number of years a guardian has practiced probate and guardianship law.
Wood once dealt with a case involving three filthy-rich sons who he says wanted each other dead. He sifted through the drama and discovered that the siblings’ blinding hatred boiled down to six oil paintings of historical family members that all three children wanted.
Wood proposed a solution: Take the gobs of inheritance money and commission an artist to re-create the paintings. “Each got two originals and four copies, and they were indistinguishable,” says Wood. “It settled the case.”
Rather than addressing inconsistencies or problems that may be occurring in their courts, Wood, Wright and Travis County’s Herman shifted the blame for any problems in the system to the Texas Legislature.
“What bothers me about the whole system is that there’s going to be a winner and loser on contested matters. The ones who haven’t done well in court become a testifier before the Legislature, and they use the testimony to make laws,” says Wright, who adds that, as of July, his appointee list included 565 different people. “The ones who are the winners aren’t going to go say something. Are they hearing both sides?”
Olsen says the biggest micro-level problem in Harris County involves proposed wards who suffer from drug and alcohol problems and the lack of facilities and programs to deal with substance abuse. Meanwhile, Butts wishes there were more qualified guardianship providers in Harris County who aren’t double-dipping as attorneys.

Butts says Ginger Lott, the same guardian who was put in charge of Willie Jo Mills’s well-being, is one of only two third-party guardians in the Houston area who don’t charge astronomical lawyer-level fees. The Press reached out to Lott in early July for an interview. “I am checking with my attorney,” says Lott, “but I will be happy to meet with you.” We never heard back.
*****
Before dying last fall, Willie Jo Mills suffered miserably under the care of two different court-appointed, third-party guardians, according to her daughter Sherry Johnston.
Before dying last fall, Willie Jo Mills suffered miserably under the care of two different court-appointed, third-party guardians, according to her daughter Sherry Johnston.
Photos courtesy of Sherry Johnston
During the 84th Texas legislative session this year, state Sen. Zaffirini was able to push through 11 bills on guardianships and probate judiciary matters, including Senate Bill SB 1876 (cosponsored by state Rep. John Smithee), which requires judges to use a rotation system when appointing guardians ad litem, attorneys ad litem and mediators.
Valdez says that more progress on guardianship issues was made during the 2015 Legislature than in the three previous legislative sessions combined. Probate judges interviewed by the Press disagree with many of the changes.

For instance, Wood says that SB 1369, which will withhold grant funding if courts don’t report appointee fees to the Office of Court Administration, isn’t going to capture all lawyers’ expenses. “If a private attorney files an application to become a guardian, the guardian has to get permission to hire them or another attorney as their attorney, but I don’t appoint that other attorney, so those fees are never reported to anybody.”
New laws aside, Gregory DeFrancesco says that if he had to do it all over again, he would never allow a third-party guardian to look after his mom. Now that the retired HPD sergeant is living in the Albuquerque area, he and his sister have banded together so that the Houston-based Donna can become their mother’s legal guardian.
However, Donna is in a battle with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to clear her name. According to the DeFrancescos, when their dad started to go downhill, Adult Protective Services concluded that Gregory and Donna were a threat to their parents based on the disgust the siblings had for each other.
“[Judge Wright’s court] calls me for this hearing and that hearing knowing I can’t be there. I’m concerned they’ll take the guardianship away,” says Gregory, who was able to get APS to drop its complaint against him. “Sibling rivalry is what they live for. That’s their bread and butter.”
Sherry Johnston has become a one-woman activist for exposing guardianship abuses since the death of her mother, Willie Jo. Even though she works graveyard shifts at a chemical plant near her home in Cleveland, she’s often in Houston interviewing wards who have complained about their third-party guardian care (or lack thereof).
Two months after her mother’s September 2014 death, Sherry posted a tribute video on YouTube with disturbing and heartbreaking images of her mom’s physical deterioration, which Sherry says is the fault of the Harris County probate courts and the appointed caretakers.
On Mother’s Day this year, Sherry added a comment to the video that gives a sardonic thanks to Judge Christine Riddle Butts and Ginger Lott for putting “Willie Jo Mills in the grave.”

what happens to animals after they die? Do they go to heaven?

Do Animals Go to Heaven?



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My dog recently died. He was my loyal companion for many years, even more loyal than some of my friends. I was wondering: what happens to animals after they die? Do they go to heaven?

The Short Answer

If you’re asking whether there is some sort of “dog heaven” in which there are cute puppies running around a special section of paradise, then, although I hate to be the one to disappoint you, the answer is no. However, if you mean “heaven” in the broader celestial sense, then yes.

The Slightly Longer Answer: The Philosophical Debate

The question of whether animals go to heaven has been debated throughout the centuries.
The Midrash states unequivocally that animals don’t have a portion in the world to come.1 But that has not stopped some of the greatest Jewish philosophers from debating whether the concept of reward and punishment, and by extension the afterlife, applies to animals.
For example, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, in his famous philosophical work Sefer Emunot ve-De’ot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions), writes that an animal is ultimately compensated for all the pain it went through in life and death.2 This idea is in line with the statement in the Talmud that “the Holy One, blessed be He, does not deprive any creature of any reward due to it”3 (although an animal’s reward is different than what a person would receive for doing a good deed out of free will). The fact that Rabbi Saadiah Gaon held that this applies even to an animal going through a painful death suggests that the animal will continue to exist even after death.
On the other hand, Maimonides is of the opinion that the concept of reward and punishment applies to man alone.4

The Kabbalistic Response

The question of whether animals are rewarded and have immortal souls is important, as it not only gives man perspective and meaning in his interactions with the rest of G‑d’s creations, but explains, in part, man’s purpose in this world.
In a long and fascinating letter, the fourth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash, explains that although some Kabbalists were of the opinion that animals don’t have immortal souls,5 according to the teachings of the Arizal animals do in fact have independent souls, and they do go to heaven.6 The Arizal is generally considered the final arbiter for all Kabbalistic teachings.
The Arizal explains that every created entity possesses a “soul.” This includes everything from rocks and other inanimate objects to animals and, of course, people. This soul or “spark of G‑dliness” not only sustains the creation’s existence, but it imbues the creation with its purpose and significance in the world.

Different Souls

But if every creation has a spark of G‑d, in what way does the soul of a person and that of an animal differ?
G‑d created the world, including the souls of animals, through speech. It is only regarding a person’s soul that the verse states, “He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”7 The Kabbalists explain that when one speaks, he uses a relatively superficial level of breath. But when one blows, he blows from deep within him. So too, man’s soul comes from the very essence of the divine.

Interactive Souls

When G‑d created the world, He invested in man the power to elevate the divine sparks or souls that are found throughout creation. It is for this reason that in general, the way an animal’s soul is elevated and returned after its death to its divine source is through its positive and spiritual interactions with man.
So, for instance, we can elevate the soul of a kosher animal by making a proper blessing when eating, and by using the energy gained for acts of goodness and righteousness.
(However, unlike a person’s afterlife, in which the souls “bask and delight in G‑d’s glory”8 in the Garden of Eden, the animal soul returns to its source (the supernal world of Tohu) in an elevated state.9)
In the end, while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.

FOOTNOTES
1.See Kohelet Rabbah 3:22; Masechet Kallah, chs. 1–2.
2.Emunot ve-De’ot 3:10. See also Teshuvot HaGeonim (Harkavy ed.) 375.
3.Talmud, Bava Kamma 38b.
4.Guide for the Perplexed 3:17. See also his commentary to the Mishnah, Bava Kamma 4:3.
5.Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, known as the Ramak, writes that animals’ souls are not immortal, and their souls cease to exist when the animal dies (Ramak, Sefer ha-Pardes, Shaar ha-Heichalot, ch. 10).
6.See Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharash, p. 92.
7.Genesis 2:7.
8.See Talmud, Berachot 17a.
9.See Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharash, p. 92.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Peter Falk bill coming to Utah

Peter Falk bill coming to Utah

Peter Falk bill coming to Utah
(KUTV) A Peter Falk bill is coming to the Utah Legislature.
Actor Peter Falk played Columbo, a rumpled detective, who was smarter than he appeared, and was one of the most popular characters ever on television.
Falk’s daughter Catherine Falk is now touring states asking for legal changes that would allow children to visit their parents in the hospital or a care facility.
“When my father was very sick, my sister and I weren’t given access. We couldn’t see him,” Catherine Falk said.
Peter Falk suffered from Alzheimer’s and died in 2011. His second wife kept his children from him in his last illness.
“It was his last days, and you just want to spend time with your father,” Catherine Falk said.
She is travelling from state to state asking for a streamlined legal process that would allow children to visit their parents.
“I’ve met with people in Utah who had the same problem,” says Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Weiler will sponsor a “Peter Falk” bill in the 2016 Utah legislative session.
Catherine. Falk says such bills are already pending in New York, New Jersey and Arizona.
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Brain-Eating Amoeba Shows Up in Louisiana Tap Water: Here’s What You Should Know

Brain-Eating Amoeba Shows Up in Louisiana Tap Water: Here’s What You Should Know

St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana is undergoing a 60-day chlorine “burn” of its water supply after Naegleria fowleri was detected. (Photo: Getty Images)
A brain-eating amoeba that killed two people in two weeks ago has turned up in the water supply of a Louisiana county near New Orleans for the second time in two years.
The water supply of St. Bernard Parish (Louisiana counties are called parishes), which is located five miles outside of downtown New Orleans, is undergoing a 60-day chlorine “burn” to eradicate Naegleria fowleri, the Louisiana Department of Heath and Hospitals announced.
Officials say the burn is being conducted “out of caution,” adding that the tap water is safe to drink because you cannot become ill by drinking infected water. However, they warn that residents should avoid getting water in their noses because it can infect people via that route. It travels up the nose and into the brain, where it typically causes an infection of the lining around the brain (meningitis) and inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). Symptoms often include severe headaches, fever, and a stiff neck.
Infection with the amoeba is often deadly. A teenage boy died this month after developing an infection believed to have been caused by Naegleria fowleri that he came into contact with while swimming in a lake. Hunter A. Boutain, 14, died from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a rare infection of the brain caused by the amoeba, just 48 hours after he went swimming in Minnesota’s Lake Minnewaska. He was hospitalized after his swim and was unresponsive hours later, The Associated Press reports.
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Naegleria fowleri, the amoeba that killed 14-year-old Hunter Boutain. (Photo: Corbis Images) 
“Hunter’s condition deteriorated throughout the night and he was declared brain-dead this morning,” his uncle and family spokesman, Brian Boutain, said in a statement to the AP. “Hunter died surrounded by his family. It is a deeply emotional time for all us. We ask for privacy and prayers as we remember our beloved Hunter.”
The news is eerily similar to a report that surfaced in late June of a 21-year-old woman who died of PAM after swimming in a lake in Reno, Nevada.
The woman, whose identity has not been released by her family, first experienced a headache, nausea, and vomiting on June 16, the Reno Gazette-Journal reports. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with meningitis, before suffering cardiac arrest and dying on June 20. (Tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were positive for Naegleria fowleri.)
But according to the CDC, Naegleria fowleri infections are extremely rare in the U.S. Just 35 infections were reported from 2005 to 2014 and, of those infections, 31 people were infected after swimming. One contracted the parasite from contaminated water used on a backyard Slip’N Slide.
Despite the rarity of infections, Naegleria is found in freshwater all over the world, says infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And the parasite loves warm water.
“During summer months, you’re going to see cases of Naegleria fowleri infections because people tend to engage in water-related activities,” he explains to Yahoo Health.
Naegleria fowleri doesn’t just show up in lakes, though; it can be in your water as well. Three of the 35 cases reported to the CDC were people who were infected after doing nasal irrigation (such as with a neti pot) with contaminated tap water.
“If you’re going to use a neti pot, it’s probably not a bad idea to use sterile or filtered water,” says Dr. Steven Gordon, chairman of the infectious disease department at the Cleveland Clinic, which has seen a few cases of Naegleria fowleri infections.
Gordon tells Yahoo Health that experts don’t know why some people become infected with the most deadly form of the infection and others don’t.
But experts do know that it often kills. “Virtually everybody who contracts it dies from it,” says Adalja. However, he says there have been a “handful of cases” where people have survived, after doctors were able control pressure in the patients’ brains.
While experts stress that Naegleria fowleri infection is rare, there are some steps you can take to lower your already slim odds of developing the illness.
If you’re concerned about contracting the infection, avoid putting your head underwater while swimming in lakes or rivers, and don’t jump or dive into freshwater — all of which can result in water getting up your nose. You can also wear nose plugs to keep water out.
However, Gordon says, “It’s such an unusual event … we don’t want you to stop swimming.”
Testing tap water for the amoeba is still relatively new, says the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and it is evolving. While your drinking water is likely fine, it’s probably not a bad idea to avoid getting tap water up your nose — just to be safe.
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