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How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

Joy Powers woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and stripped of her rights. Months later, court-appointed fees drained her life savings

Photo: , License: N/A

A Bexar County court twice investigated whether Jack Hood was incapacitated when he contested a guardianship case involving his wife of 35 years.


The Fourth Court reversed Rickhoff's order giving Hood's stepdaughter control over much of the property he owns with his wife. And soon after Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff wrote about the hearing Rickhoff recused himself from the case. In February, Hood filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct against Rickhoff, writing, "At no time did the Judge allow evidence, nor was I ever told on record why I was not chosen guardian of my wife of over 30 years."

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GRADE's Valdez became active in guardianship reform because of her daughter, who has intellectual disabilities. A long, drawn-out case stretching between probate courts in Bexar and Travis counties highlights the fears that pushed her to get involved.

The case involves Marie Bergman and her daughter Sheri, now in her 50s, who also has intellectual disabilities. Decades ago, after a bitter divorce with her husband, a Bexar County probate court appointed an attorney as guardian over Sheri in lieu of her mother, though court records give no hint as to why she was disqualified. A 1997 order appointed a local probate attorney, Amy Bitter, as a successor guardian for Sheri — strangely, court documents refer to Bitter as "aunt of the ward," which she is not. The following year Bitter filed a sweeping set of restrictions with the court claiming Marie Bergman's visits were "detrimental." Bitter also wrote that Marie was late returning her daughter to her long-term care facility after one weekend visit (Marie said she was using public transportation at the time).

Under the court-appointed guardian's rules, Marie has only been allowed to see her daughter one hour each month in visits accompanied by nursing staff. "If asked to leave, Ms. Bergman must comply immediately and quietly," reads the order filed in court restricting her visits. "Failure to do so will result in termination of visits for a period of three months."

In 2011 Bitter resigned as Sheri's guardian, and Family Eldercare, a guardianship services program, was appointed as a successor. The case was transferred from Bexar to Travis County and Bergman moved from San Antonio to Austin to be closer to the facility where Family Eldercare is keeping her daughter.

Late last month Family Eldercare terminated Marie's visits with Sheri after an August 15 visit she, Valdez, and Bergman's neighbor, Norman Jacobson, had with Sheri and a Family Eldercare representative. When the three raised concerns over the restrictive visits, the meeting ended, Valdez said.

Two days later Bergman got a call from Family Eldercare saying visits had been indefinitely suspended. The following week, caseworkers with Adult Protective Services attempted to contact Jacobson, 74, to investigate whether he was being exploited or abused. Jacobson, who refused to meet with the Current in Austin and would only speak briefly by phone, insists he's not incapacitated. "Somebody reported that I was abused, but that's false," he said. APS says its reports are confidential, and calls and emails made to Family Eldercare have not been returned.

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