May 1, 2013
“Way too often we see horrific incidences of financial exploitation in the elder law cases that come to us,” said Laura Negrón (’07). Negrón, as director of the Guardianship Project at the Vera Institute of Justice, and her team try to give clients all the services that guardians should be providing.
She thinks of the frugal widow—a Holocaust survivor— who suffered a stroke that made her unable to live alone. The woman’s daughter asked her to move into her house, but, on arrival, told the widow she had to buy the house or she would be sent away. With the mother at the brink of suicide, the daughter gained power of attorney and then accessed the millions her parents had saved. While draining these accounts, she neglected her mother, failing to dispense her stroke medication.
“You can’t even believe that people like this exist,” said Negrón. “It was her own daughter!”
The Vera Institute established the Guardianship Project following a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in 2004 on elder abuse perpetrated at the hands of court-appointed guardians. Among the examples: a guardian who visited a client in a nursing home to bring her cake and flowers on her birthday, but later billed $850 in legal fees for the visit.
The report, Negrón said, underscores the need for some form of public guardianship with safeguards to help prevent misuse of clients’ funds and to provide guardianship access to individuals, whether they have money or not. Currently, courts typically appoint private attorneys, paid through clients’ assets, if there is no family or friend to look after a person deemed incapacitated. So clients with meager resources unable to pay guardian fees may find themselves in an institution with little chance to get home.
That’s despite home care often being more cost-effective than hospital or nursing home care. The Guardianship Project serves roughly 100 clients per year, and it has tracked annual cost savings to Medicaid of about $2.5 million.
Negrón didn’t turn to elder law until she was almost 50 years old. She already had a career in social work and had raised a family. Then her father suffered a brain injury and developed dementia as her mother battled cancer. Negrón and her brother became co-guardians for their father. Watching home health aides try to exploit her parents led her to want better eldercare services. That desire led her to CUNY Law School.
Given its public-interest slant, experiential focus, and welcoming stance toward nontraditional law students—not to mention the Elder Law Clinic—Negrón knew she had found the right place.
Six years later, Negrón still regularly visits Professor Joe Rosenberg’s clinic to talk to students. She also places them with the Guardianship Project, where they most recently were instrumental in recovering $63,000 unlawfully held by a client’s son.
“Guardianship is such an invisible area of practice. To me, it demands the development of a cadre of talented and caring lawyers to provide the advocacy and services this population really needs and often doesn’t get,” she said.
– Paul Lin