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A grandma in Detroit just wanted a wheelchair ramp. How did she end up being put under guardianship?

Posted: 2:04 PM, Nov 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-13 16:04:45-05
A grandma in Detroit just wanted a wheelchair ramp. How did she end up being put under guardianship?

DETROIT — After a fall in her home, 78-year-old Bessie Owens said she just needed some help getting a wheelchair ramp installed. Instead, the longtime Detroit resident ended up being put under guardianship in the probate courts, where she was declared legally incapacitated.

When you’re put under guardianship and conservatorship, you can no longer make any legal, medical or financial decisions.

That’s why Owens says she wants to know why Adult Protective Services workers petitioned the court to put her under guardianship and conservatorship, instead of helping her get what she really needed.

Owens needs a walker to get around but she’s still fiercely independent. She struggles with osteoarthritis, but she says she is more than capable of handling her own medical and financial affairs.

“I know how to tap into resources in my neighborhood and beyond,” Owens says. “And I think I should have some input into my life daily.”

That’s why the longtime Detroiter is furious that an Adult Protective Services worker petitioned the Wayne County Probate Court last May to place her under guardianship and conservatorship.

According to Owens, she didn't get any notice that a guardianship case had been opened about her, and she saw nothing in writing.

This all started last year when she says she fell two times and ended up in the hospital.

Owens says, on her own, she arranged for in-home caregivers. But she still needed a ramp to bypass her front steps with her walker.

“Without the ramp, I could not get outside to transact business and that kind of stuff,” Owens says.

Someone contacted Adult Protective Services for a welfare check, and then Owens says an APS investigator named Tresna Tupper came into her home uninvited.

“That’s intrusion,” Owens says.

Tupper then filed petitions for guardianship and conservatorship with the Wayne County Probate Court, saying Owens is “medically frail” and “unable to manage her affairs.”

Court records show Tupper even wrote — under penalty of perjury — that she couldn’t find Owens' adult children to tell them about the guardianship, even though her daughter can easily be found on Facebook.

Her daughter, a Wayne County employee, confirms no one from APS or the courts ever contacted her. Tupper also typed the wrong address for APS on the petitions, as well as on the petition in another case reviewed by WXYZ.

Legal experts say Owens' family would have had priority under the law to become a guardian, if one was needed.

“Your guardian is making some very intimate decisions about everything about your life,” says Nicole Shannon, a systemic advocacy attorney from the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative.

“Michigan law requires that adult children be notified of a petition for guardianship and presumptive heirs be notified of a petition for conservatorship," Shannon added. "That notice has to be in writing and served either in-person or through the mail."

If a person filing a petition is unable to locate the adult children or presumptive heirs, they can ask the court for special permission to notify them through publication or some other method. That is done by filing an affidavit under penalty of perjury with the court showing that despite diligent efforts, they could not determine the whereabouts of the person.

Diligent effort typically includes asking known friends or family members, as well as conducting an internet search. There should not be a final ruling until all parties have received their notice.

Unfortunately, when family members do find out about guardianship or conservatorship after the fact, it can be too late. Significant decisions have already been made, and there must often be a second series of court hearings to try to unwind what has already happened.”

“I do not need (anyone) to oversee my finances, or a guardian," Owens says. "I’m mentally capable of transacting my day-to-day business. I do not need that. I need a ramp to be able to leave my home when I need to."

Even after she learned of the guardianship case, Owens says she didn't have transportation for court, so she couldn't attend the hearing last summer.

Tupper asked the court to appoint Whitehouse Guardian Services, which is owned by Stacey White-Smith.

Court records show Tupper has asked the court to give at least nine guardianship cases this year to Whitehouse Guardian Services.

Tupper also nominated a lawyer named Cynthia Williams to be Owens’ conservator to take over her social security income.

Court records show Tupper and Williams are also listed together on at least eight conservatorship cases since 2018.

Williams and White-Smith deny they have any sort of relationship with APS investigator Tupper.

On her own, Owens contacted a local nonprofit who installed the ramp for her in August.

Guardian White-Smith would not talk to WXYZ on camera, but she did admit she’s only seen Owens two times since she was appointed guardian in June.

Owens says when she tried to get a hold of White-Smith in September she couldn’t, and later found out she was out of the country. In addition, Owens has never even met her conservator.

WXYZ started asking questions about why Owens was put under guardianship in August.

Now, both the guardian and the conservator have told the court that they want out of the case, and say Owens doesn’t need a guardian or conservator.

Even as she seeks to terminate her involvement, court records show the conservator, Williams, wants to get paid $687.50 for five and a half hours of work.

WXYZ caught up with Williams after a court hearing for another case where she and White-Smith are both in charge of a different ward. When asked about the bill and what exactly she did, Williams said, "I told you, my account shows you what I did" and didn't provide any more details.

Conservator bill for Bessie Owens

“I want everybody to know, especially the population that I’m in, which is seniors and people with disabilities, what can happen, if you don’t pay attention to the system that’s supposed to protect us,” Owens says.

Owens, the guardian and the conservator will all be in court next week when Owens hopes to have this guardianship terminated.

WXYZ did try several times to talk to Tresna Tupper from APS, including visiting her at home and calling her.

A spokesman says they can’t comment on the specifics of this case due to privacy rules, but they are going to conduct additional training on filing guardianship petitions and using community resources first.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released the following statement:

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is committed to respecting human dignity and protecting the health, safety and well-being of vulnerable adults. Adult Protective Services takes very seriously its responsibility to protect vulnerable adults. APS follows policies put in place to help understand and respond to each unique situation, and when necessary, works with partners in the court who make the final decision on what’s best for these individuals. Adult Protective Services aims to provide the least-restrictive services that are necessary to keep a vulnerable adult safe. The department is looking into the concerns that have been expressed.

Below we have listed a series of our questions to APS about their role in initiating guardianship cases.

The guardian says she tries to go above and beyond for her wards. Her additional statement is below.

Stacey White-Smith Statement

“I am one of many public guardian's that genuinely care [sic] about the community that I live in and would like to see more stories in regards to the challenges we face serving the mentally and physically incapacitated individuals in Wayne County. Every day is a challenge in making sure that my

Wards have all of their needs met. It is my job to assess every situation individually and make the best decisions for the people I am appointed to serve. As a guardian at times I go above and beyond my mandated duties to make sure that my Wards feel that they are cared for. It is not beneath me to assist with transportation to hair appointments, grocery stores, doctor’s appointments, even bringing lunch and snacks to my clients in nursing and group homes. I love my community and I love the people in it and I have committed myself to making sure that I help as many people as I can in Wayne County. My client list is very small, one of the smallest agencies in Wayne County but that's only because I want to make sure that I can give individualized attention to the people I've been appointed to care for…

Everyday I work with phenomenal Judges who have to make tough decisions in regards to people's lives. I am proud to be a part of this system and I hope that I can continue to provide quality Guardianship Services to my community. At this point I would have to respectfully decline a second interview. I thank you in advance for respecting my privacy and the privacy of my family.”

Questions regarding Adult Protective Services to Bob Wheaton, Public Information Officer, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services:

How often do APS investigators file petitions for guardianships?

Guardianship petitions are filed when allegations of abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation is substantiated for adults determined to be vulnerable, mentally or physically at risk of harm and/or unable to make an informed decision. APS will exhaust all other alternative resources to alleviate risk of harm to the client prior to filing a petition.

Policy is as follows:

Whenever non-legal intervention fails to meet the goal of protection, the need for voluntary or involuntary legal intervention may be utilized to protect the client. The APS worker must evaluate the need for legal intervention, and it should be initiated only when the following conditions exist:

· Endangerment cannot be eliminated with the use of the social intervention process, and

· The client requests or voluntarily accepts legal assistance because physical or cognitive limitations result in the inability to manage one’s own affairs or the client does not consent to legal action but is endangered because he/she is unable to exercise independent judgment due to cognitive or physical limitations.

What’s the protocol for filing a petition?

The APS investigator determines if petition is needed and gathers information to support or justify the need to present to the court.

What happens before a petition is filed?

The APS investigator gathers pertinent information, attempts to alleviate risk of harm by obtaining resources, working with client (if cooperative/able), working with the client’s support base, i.e. community affiliations, family, neighbors, and friends, and making appropriate referrals/arrangements for other services. APS investigator reviews the case with supervisor.

What’s the protocol for trying to reach family members?

It is routine for APS investigators to attempt to find and contact family members and include the family if appropriate (unless the related person is the perpetrator) when completing a Plan of Care and filing petitions. There are times in which it is appropriate to honor the client’s request not to contact family. In an attempt to locate family, APS investigators will ask the client, review former MDHHS cases, conduct the Bridges system (which tracks public assistance cases) clearance to search associated people, ask friends or neighbors of the client if appropriate, review the Court-View court records system, and publish in the Legal News.

How is the guardian determined?

The guardian can be nominated by the judge or APS investigator. There are times when APS will nominate a guardian and the judge appoints someone else. Wayne County has two contracted guardianship agencies which we will generally nominate, prior to 2018 we only had one. However, APS is not restricted to utilizing contracted agencies due to the volume of clients in need. Guardianship agencies are our community partners who we establish working relationships with. Due to agencies’ established networks with community resources, some specialize in serving developmentally delayed clients, seniors who want to stay in their own home or clients who need placements. In general APS investigators establish working relationship with various guardians and learn who provides the best client services and will best meet the needs of clients.

Does your APS investigator (Ms. Tupper) have a relationship, financial or otherwise, with Whitehouse Guardian Service?

The department is unaware of any relationship other than a professional relationship.

Why did the APS investigator (Ms. Tupper) say in the petition that she couldn’t reach the client’s family to see if there was a suitable relative provider when the client says all she had to do was ask the client for contact information? Tupper wrote “unknown” for the address of all three adult children who live in Southeast Michigan.

We can’t discuss specifics due to confidentiality, however, as stated above, APS attempts to find a suitable family guardian if possible and if the client wants to have a relative guardian. In some cases, the client does not want to have a relative be his/her guardian or the probate court may appoint an guardian that the court feels is best suited for this role, if the court finds there is clear and convincing evidence that the person is legally incapacitated and that the appointment is necessary to provide continuing care and supervision of the person.

How does this APS investigator (Ms. Tupper) find guardians?

Each county has contracted guardians, and can also utilize other guardians that the workers are familiar with. There are checks and balances in the system. Clients have a guardian ad litem who is appointed to watch out for the client’s interest, and the probate judge makes the final decision. So APS investigators may make a recommendation of a guardian who is willing to serve as guardian and the probate court determines who the guardian will be.

This story was originally published by Heather Catallo on WXYZ.