Following multiple RebelPundit reports on guardianship abuse, our latest investigation reveals this problem is widespread across the country and there is top to bottom corruption in court appointed guardianship in Harris County, Texas.
After speaking to victims, lawyers, and activists, the investigation reveals that the probate court in Harris County works much like a good ole boys club where judges receive campaign contributions from lawyers who then receive favorable rulings. In a court with little oversight, several victims suffered physical and mental abuse and were left to effectively be euthanized.
Guardianship is a court created power to take decisions of healthcare and finances away from those the court has deemed incapacitated and unable to make those decisions for themselves.
Initially started to protect the elderly and mentally challenged from being taken advantage of, it has often been corrupted, having the opposite effect. Those perfectly healthy who are effectively jailed and held against their wills, often end up in nursing homes away from their families.
Sherry Johnston told RebelPundit her mother was one of those victims. Her mother died in September 2014, weighing less than thirty pounds her normal weight. She provided Rebel Pundit with a series of photos which showed bruising, bed sores, and she made a You Tube video of doctors and guardianship professionals refusing to provide her mother with treatment, instead choosing to send her to hospice care to die.
Johnston said her ordeal started when a family dispute led to an order placing her mother, Willie Jo Mills, in guardianship. Rather than choosing a family member to be her guardian, Judge Christine Butts, appointed David Dexel to be the guardian.
The judge also appointed a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and an Attorney ad Litem to oversee the case, all at the expense of the estate. Rather than allowing Mills to live with Johnston, as both wanted, Dexel placed Mills in the Silverado Nursing Home in Kingwood, Texas, in the spring 2009.
The estate was charged $7,000 a month for the care.
“At Sliverado she was abused, isolated and neglected,” Johnston told RebelPundit.
Dexel, whose name came up repeatedly in the investigation, is out of the office until December, according to his law office, and didn’t respond with a statement on this and other cases.
According to campaign finance records, Dexel contributed $1,000 to Butts’ campaign while the GAL in the case, Howard Reiner, contributed $2,500 to Butts campaign in 2013.
Reiner didn’t return a phone message left at his law office.
Butts was re-elected in November 2014.
Johnston said her mother’s estate has been charged nearly $300,000 in total fees by court professionals, including lawyers like Dexel and Reiner who charged between $250-300 per hour for their services.
Debbie Valdez, President of Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly (GRADE) is not surprised and said poorly thought out legislation has led to problems in the State of Texas and Harris County.
She told Rebel Pundit that her group has received complaints against three of the four elected probate judges in Harris County.
The most notorious judge is Mike Wood who has been featured in a number of exposes in Houston area media. Valdez said in 2005, Woods was one of several judges to testify in front of the Texas legislature to argue for more ambitious guardianship laws, claiming elderly would be victimized without them.
The result was bill SB 6, which Valdez told RebelPundit has done the opposite, leading to far more corruption and abuse.
One problem is that the law turned Texas into a court initiated guardianship state. By this Valdez explained, once any report is made of an individual to probate court, they are immediately put into the guardianship system even before its determined, if in fact, the ward is incapacitated.
“We see court initiated guardianship as very dangerous.”
That’s exactly what happened to her mother said Johnston.
“She never had due process,” Johnston said of her mother. “She never saw a judge or anything (before being put into the guardianship system).”
This creates a “presumed guilty” dynamic.
Another problem is that courts are run entirely through a network the judge controls. In the case of Mills, her family wasn’t allowed to hire an attorney for her, but was instead appointed an attorney by the courts.
Valdez added, with attorneys and social workers are being invited into a dynamic where they are looking to please the judge and to make decisions which will prolong guardianship and thus add to the fees.
Possibly the most disturbing story was that of Helen Hale.
In an extensive expose, Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle wrote:
Under a court-ordered guardianship, 86-year-old widow Helen Hale was plucked from the house she and her husband had built on wooded acreage in Cypress for their retirement and relocated to an unlicensed group home run by a caregiver with a criminal history.
In some of the state’s largest counties, like Harris, Travis and Bexar, so many people are in guardianships that each probate judge oversees from 1,500 to 3,000 ‘wards’ of the court. Yet most judges have only a single investigator to check out potential problems.
Upon speaking with Hale’s family, the end result is that more than three years later nothing has changed.
RebelPundit conducted interviews with Hale’s daughter Susan Staley and her granddaughter, Jennifer Goings, and though Hale has six children, Judge Butts, without explanation, chose a daughter with a history of drug use who had recently spent more than a decade without seeing her mother, as her guardian.
Goings provided RebelPundit with a series of photos which show bruises, bed sores, and other signs of neglect perpetrated on her grandmother.
The photos of Hale’s bed sores from one of the unsanitary nursing homes she’s been forced to stay in were to graphic for publishing.
Staley said she can’t remember the last time she’s seen her mother, because in order to do that she’d first need to get permission from her estranged sibling guardian.
“I won’t give her the satisfaction.” Staley said.
The Goings family has written a series of letters and emails begging Judge Butts to reconsider this decision including one written by Ron Goings on April 4, 2012.
“She (Helen Hale) has asked us to please get her out of this situation. At every turn we have been painted into a corner as being aggressive, manipulative and now as terrorists. I cannot understand how the court and its investigators and supposed guardians can be so blind.”
Harris County has a population of 4.1 million people, according to the 2010 census, making it the largest county in Texas and third largest in the country. It includes the cities of Houston and Sugar Land.
Judge Butts provided a statement to RebelPundit addressing these two cases:
I am unable to comment specifically on the cases you identified, as the Code of Judicial Conduct provides in part that, ‘A judge shall abstain from public comment about a pending or impending proceeding which may come before the judge’s court in a manner which suggests to a reasonable person the judge’s probable decision on any particular case.’
However, I will tell you that, with regard to the cases involving Helen Hale and Willie Jo Mills, such cases were contested in that the children of Ms. Hale and Ms. Mills were in dispute as to the appropriate choice of guardian.  With regard to all cases in Probate Court 4, copies of the pleadings (which include orders of the court and reports of the court investigator) are available through the Harris County Clerk’s office.
“Ms. Mills due process rights were violated when she was not allowed to participate in resolving the dispute in Judge Butts court, instead Judge Butts removed all her civil, constitutional and human rights by forcing a guardianship upon her which ultimately placed Ms. Mills in an abusive and exploitive lifestyle until she died.” Sherry Johnston said in response to Butts’ statement. “Ms. Mills guardian ad litem, attorney ad litem, guardian,  were and remain to be much better protected by the guardianship placed on Ms. Mills than she was,while she suffered, and her estate paid for the abuse, neglect and exploitation she was subjected to. Her only protection would have been by and from Judge Christine Butts.”
In another similar case, Mack Peterson told RebelPundit that guardianship has fractured his family. For the last year, he’s been unable to see his mother Ruby Peterson after Judge Loyd Wright gave guardianship to an estranged sibling.
“They’re criminals,” Peterson said.
Like in the case of Johnston, Peterson’s mother has been housed for the last year in a Sliverado nursing home, this one in Sugar Land.
Silverado’s corporate office didn’t immediately provide a statement or response to questions about the Peterson and Mills cases for this story.
Peterson said he was once nearly arrested when he attempted to visit his mother.
He hired Phil Ross to represent his interest and Ross said when he attempted to visit Ruby Peterson for his investigative work he was turned away.
Ross said he was recently able to negotiate a settlement with other Peterson siblings which paves the way for Mack Peterson to finally see his mother.
Ross also said the Peterson case has involved a plethora of court professionals including a guardian ad litem, attorney ad Litem, and another attorney, Sarah Pacheco, who represented Peterson’s sibling as the guardian.
On Wright’s campaign reelection website, he lists his contributors which include Dexel, Pacheco, and Russ Jones, the GAL on Peterson’s case.
Jones and Pacheco didn’t respond to an email for comment.
Ross said that psychiatrist, Christopher Merkl, originally reported Ruby Peterson had full dementia, only to change his testimony later, after she’d be put into a nursing home for partial dementia.
A message was left with Dr. Merkl’s answering service but he didn’t respond.
Mack Peterson said the family has spent over $600,000 from the expenses incurred by the probate court.
Ross said in one case he’s handling not only is there a guardian ad litem, an attorney ad litem, and a guardian, but the court has appointed an attorney for each of the three, “all at the expense of the estate,” Ross added.
Sharon Thomas said her aunt, Ivory Ellis, felt pain in her leg in 2007 and when she went to the hospital, she got stuck in the probate system for six months before anyone in her family saw her again.
Thomas said her aunt was moved routinely from nursing home to nursing home over the next seven years. The probate court listed her next of kin as her dead husband, Thomas told RebelPundit, and said she believed this oversight was done to make it easier to keep her in the system.
Thomas said her aunt was routinely mistreated in the nursing homes chosen for her. In November 2012, Ellis was moved after an examination found the following: “Ivory Ellis Face was inflamed (left and right jaws), bottom lip was puffy and a small cut on left cheek.” Her Care taker explains she arrived from Woodridge Nursing home (in this condition), and was not aware that face or lip were inflamed. Her Family noted the condition of Ivory Ellis’s face with appointed guardian by e-mail, however, Ivory Ellis stated liquid medication was given to her only.
Thomas said her aunt died earlier this year isolated and alone.
In another guardianship battle, Donna DeFrancesco and her brother Greg said they’ve been able to put lifelong sibling rivalries aside and they’ve grown closer fighting corruption in Guardianship.
“I assumed guardianship was lawful.” Greg DeFrancesco, a recently retired Houston police officer, told RebelPundit.
About a year ago, he thought guardianship was best for his mother, Olga, now 87, but this was challenged by his sister.
“They (guardianship abusers) are looking for people like us.” Greg DeFrancesco told RebelPundit.
By this, he meant that once there is a dispute amongst the family, that’s all that’s necessary for probate court to step in and take over.
Judge Loyd Wright appointed David Dexel who proceeded to stick their mother in a nursing home. The DeFrancesco’s have become close to Sherry Johnston and they believe their mother was treated much like hers.
In September 2014, after the two siblings reconciled, they wrestled guardianship back into his hands.
Greg DeFrancesco said when he finally removed his mother from the nursing him she was near death, dehydrated, and malnourished.
He told RebelPundit he believes his mother was effectively being euthanized. She’s now recovering.
He said guardianship hasn’t stopped haunting him with investigators popping up at the home his mother is staying at routinely for unannounced inspections.
Valdez said, though Houston is a Democrat area, Harris County itself is quite Republican meaning the four Republican probate judges currently serving win with little effort, despite exposes like this calling into question their competency and judgment.
Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Many folks want to do right by their elderly relatives and the government created guardianship, but in Harris County and across the nation, it has largely turned into the nightmare Reagan spoke about.