Listening to Britney Spears’ devastating testimony about life under a guardianship at her hearing in Los Angeles yesterday was heartbreaking, sickening and all too familiar.
In Oakland County Michigan, for the past three years, I’ve heard the same stories repeated thousands of times by innocent seniors and developmentally disabled individuals and their families relentlessly suffering under a literally medieval system. With little or no due process, they are stripped of their civil and constitutional rights and handed over to an attorney guardian or professional guardianship company who systematically destroys their lives, robs them of their life savings and personal belongings, down to the clothes on their back, and leaves them to rot in facilities the inhumanity of which defies description.
My team and I were able to demonstrate that it was a problem repeated in surrounding counties for over 40 years without anything being done. In June of this year, a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Forensic and investigative Reporting, came to the same conclusion: that what is happening to Michigan’s most vulnerable is systemic.
However, readers outside of this diary do not know that.
In the aftermath of international media reports, racing each other to blow up Twitter with a transcript of Ms. Spears’ remarks, or some hurried article explaining the mechanics of a “complicated conservatorship”, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable afterbirth in the form of OpEds condemning the state of America’s guardianship, probate and family court system.
I’ll wager that some of their authors will react, as their social media followers have, with abject shock that this is happening to America’s vulnerable.
Where the hell have they been?
One would think that a hopelessly corrupt legal system that has abused with impunity for decades would be prime real estate for my peers.
Yet, in Michigan, outside of myself and investigative reporter Heather Catallo’s work with ABC-affiliate WXYZ, the issue has been avoided by local journalists. This, despite victims and their families pleading with them to just look into their cases.
Those few local journalists who answered my questions as to why there has been little to no interest responded with a combination of “it’s too complex an issue” or a fear of being on the wrong end of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) filed by any one of a group of powerful estate and probate firms based in Troy.
Leading that pack has been Kemp Klein, which has not only hatched a legacy of corrupt attorney guardians like the Alien Queen, but is so sinister they make John Grisham’s “The Firm” look like The Innocence Project.
When I approached the Detroit Office of the ACLU with evidence of civil rights abuses that should have been smack in the center of their wheelhouse, the door was slammed shut followiing the brief explanation “we don’t have the resources.”
Or, roughly translated, “We won’t get the media attention.”
As a result, when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced, in March 2019, that her Elder Abuse Taskforce was focusing on reforming the guardianship system (an event I was barred from attending) no one in the Lansing Press Corps. wondered aloud why it was necessary.
One day later, Georgia Callis, vice president of the pro-guardianship lobbyists the Michigan Guardianship Association, gave an interview to Michigan Public Radio during which she stated the organization’s intent to push back on reforms that “micromanaged” guardians.
In explaining why, she stated that professional guardians not only work for free, but are our actually out money because they have to pay for parking druing a court hearing. She added that guardians make only $83-per-month for a ward on Medicaid.
She neglected to say that professional guardians, her own company included, have hundreds of wards each on Medicaid and that she owned a house in Waterford valued at $600,000. However, she was not challenged by the interviewer on any of her assertions.
When in August 2019, Nessel fired Public Adminstrators Thomas Brennan Fraser, John Yun, who were the focus of our reporting, only two outlets covered the story. Neither The Detroit News nor the Macomb Daily asked Nessel for any more specifics than her vague explanation that their removal was the result of “an internal decison.”
They just weren’t that curious.
On the afternoon of June 10 of this year, the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing during which activist and daughter of Casey Kasem, Kerri Kasem, alongside victims of guardianship abuse in at least five counties described, in horrific detail, the suffering their loved ones endured.
The local press was there. But, Nessel astutely decided to hold a press conference that morning to officially announce and congratulate her Taskforce for their reform packages and so received the lion’s share of the day’s coverage. With the exception of Ms. Kasem, the victims again went unheard.
Had the opposite been true, perhaps a very salient point been recognized. Neither probate judges nor their professional appointees have been following the law anyway and, without consequences, volumes of reform legislation the size of Marcel Proust’s Greatest Hits are a waste of pulp.
When this past Tuesday, the House Judiciary held their own hearings Nessel dominated the hour with an impassioned speech as to the value of her Taskforces’ reforms. However, only WXYZ covered it and no one asked her if she planned on taking action against professional guardians who break the law.
I have repeated that question to Nessel for three years and her only answer was to block me on Twitter.
In an appropriately ironic coda to that hearing, the Michigan Probate Judges Association hopped on Zoom to make a nonsensical statement. Although assertimg that they had been proud to work on the Taskforce legislation for two years, they now objected it. That organization has successfuly blocked such efforts by Taskforces dating back to 1998. Actvists, who have the kind of cyncism I have since adopted, tell me that, frankly, it will be a minor miracle if any of the bills make it out of committee unscathed or at all.
With one possible exception involving the family of Aretha Franklin, this will be my last post on Michigan’s guardianship problems.
I poured everything I had into exposing them (ironically including my savings and my home in Chicago) and there really isn’t anything more I can write that I have not already covered. I am an idealist at heart, so the only way I can shake a feeling of failure, is remembering that by my showing up at hearings wearing my press badge, three unneccssary guardianships were reversed. Three out of 2,237.
If there’s one thing these judges and their attorneys fear it’s the light of the media, even my own dim bulb.
What a difference Ms. Spears has made.
All I can do is hope that the accompanying outrage somehow seeps into Detroit’s newsrooms and injects a little courage and dedication to uncovering an issue that, without them, will just go on and on. For that reason. I do want to sincerely thank those of you who have followed and encouraged my team’s investigation. If the most realistic goal is to reach just one person, we achieved that.
If the arc is long, in Michigan it is also made of iron. For it to finally bend towards justice for the thousands of people who are wrongfully mprisoned behind it, will take a media and a country to finally start listening to them.
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