Monday, December 10, 2018
For anyone working in legal fields where adult guardianships may be an option, for anyone teaching elder law, health care law, constitutional law or even landlord-tenant law, a recent New York Times article, "I'm Petitioning . . . for the Return of My Life," is an important read.
On a threshold level, this is a well-told tale of one woman, Ms. Funke, who becomes subject to an intervention under New York adult protective services law, and, eventually, to a full-blown guardianship proceeding. It can be easy to become enraged on behalf of Ms. Funke as you read details about her past life as a freelance journalist and world traveler, and compare it to the limitations placed on her essential existence under a guardianship.
The article is a rather classic example of using one tragic story, a human story, to paint a picture of a government process gone wrong. At several points in the article, the writer, John Leland, offers questions that suggest some conclusions about how unfair the process has been to Ms. Funke. The writer asks, for example,
"If you were Ms. Funke, shouldn't you be allowed to withdraw into the covers [of your bed] if you wanted to? And the clutter in your apartment -- couldn't people understand that a writer needs materials around? Even if she were evicted, she had money to start somewhere else. Courts evict people with lots less [than she appears to have]. "
It's implied that the answers to those questions may outweigh the fact that the protective services intervention prevented the landlord from completing an eviction of Ms. Funke, an eviction that would have forced her out of her apartment of 40+ years.
Other, less dramatic details in the article suggest that for every Ms. Funke, there may be other people -- an unknown number of people in New York -- who are also very alone and who have also lost control over their lives because of physical frailty, mental decline, depression or other facts, and who are rescued with the help of a protective services intervention. Sometimes the intervention interrupts the decline, usually with the help of family member or friend who volunteers to help, sometimes acting with a measure of authority under a power of attorney, making a guardianship unnecessary.
The challenge, of course, is knowing when to help (and how far to go), and when to preserve the individual's right to make choices that appear unsafe. Some of the most complex cases involve people who have spent a lifetime on a unique and often solo path, and now have few family members or friends to help them as that path becomes rockier with age or illness, especially when they have no plan for the future. In the face of such facts, as one person interviewed in the article observes, guardianships are a "blunt instrument."
Something I wrote about last week also figures into the New York situation -- the apparent absence of a guardianship case tracking or monitoring system.
But another issue I'm concerned with is also suggested. At one point, an interview with one of Ms. Funke's guardians, a so-called professional (in other words, not a family member or a public guardian) discloses he does not know how far his authority as guardian extends. For example, would he be allowed to prevent her from marrying? He responded, he did not know.
It would seem that guardians and other agents, alleged incapacitated persons, -- and family members -- could all benefit from greater information, and to ongoing education on their rights, duties and options. That was also a theme emerging from article asking the question "Where's Grandma?" that I linked to last week and that I link to again here.
My thanks to the several folks who suggested this New York Times article for discussion on our Blog, including my Dickinson Law colleague, international human rights expert, Dermot Groome.