The Christmas Day before the courts stripped Inez America Carr of her
independence, she woke up earlier than usual to help prepare the traditional
family feast. She started first on the rolls, dozens of them, mixing the
homemade batter and allowing the miniature loaves to rise, then bake, before
stacking them on sheets of wax paper. She washed the collards, set them to boil
in an aluminum pot with a chunk of salt pork for flavoring, then peeled the fat
sweet potatoes and dressed them with liberal amounts of butter, sugar, and
nutmeg. By evening, her three-story home in San Francisco's upscale Pacific
Heights was thick with the savory smells of the cooking of her Mississippi
It was a typical Christmas for the Carrs. Inez, a retired practical nurse,
and her husband, Carnell, a retired psychiatric technician, never had children
of their own, but they never lacked invitations to holiday dinners. Over more
than a half-century, the Carrs had grown kin-close to a family named the
Jolivets, whose matriarch, Joanne Gentry, worked alongside Inez at the old
Franklin Hospital in the Duboce Triangle in the 1950s and '60s. After
Gentry's death, two younger generations of Jolivets adopted the Carrs as
their own. They've shopped for the couple, shuttled them to doctor
appointments, and helped with repairs to their Victorian home. "They are
my family," Inez says. "They look out for us."
At 7 p.m., Chris Jolivet, 35, came by to pick up the couple, whom he has
called aunt and uncle from the time he learned to speak. Inez removed the apron
from her holiday dress and collected the food. A few minutes later, the trio
was on the south side of town, where Jolivet, who is unmarried, brought them
for dinner with his mother, Lavern Jolivet, a 60-year-old medical transcriber
and Joanne Gentry's daughter. Carnell joked about the steep descent from
Jolivet's SUV. "Stairway to heaven," he called it, as they
entered the house for an evening of prayer, feasting, and television.
On that peaceful Christmas Day 2001, the assembled family had no idea of the
drama that was about to unfold: Just three months later, a visit from two
out-of-town relatives would set in motion a series of events that would land
the Carrs in front of a San Francisco judge. He would decide the couple were
incompetent to handle their own affairs, and place them—ostensibly for their
own well-being—under the care of professional conservators. These total
strangers would assume control of the Carrs' finances, placing them on a
restrictive monthly allowance. They would redirect their mail and try to
replace Carnell's doctor—all the while billing the Carrs $90 an hour for
their services. Eventually, legal and conservator fees would drain much of the
couple's life savings. The court would even bar Inez from hiring her own
Inez America Carr grew up with the rural Southern values of self-reliance
and autonomy, and the sudden loss of independence—and the ensuing struggle to
win it back—has left her a perplexed and angry 93-year-old. What happened
doesn't square with her vision of the country that gave her both a middle
name and a lifetime of opportunity. "How in the world can they do this to
me under the clear blue sky, under the guise that they're protecting
me?" she asks.
The answer: It happens every day across the country to unsuspecting people
just like Inez, because of a patchwork of state laws designed to care for
adults who can't take care of themselves—incapacitated adults. Often the
system works. But too often it backfires, leaving its victims worse off than
they might have been without the system's so-called protections.
That system is known in most states as "guardianship." California
calls it "conservatorship." Some places use both terms to mean
slightly different things. But the upshot is the same: In every state, a judge
has the right to decide that someone is no longer capable of running his or her
own life. The judge can then appoint a guardian to make all major decisions for
the ward (the term used to describe a person placed under guardianship).
Guardians can be attorneys, relatives or friends, government employees,
private social workers, money managers, community volunteers, or employees of
social-service organizations. They might be volunteers or they might charge a
fee. There are no reliable statistics on the number of people under
guardianship in the U.S., but estimates run upwards of 600,000, a number that
will increase exponentially as the baby boomer generation ages.
The guardianship system, which was brought over from England during colonial
times, is now considered a necessary part of elder law, to be used under narrow
circumstances and only as a last resort. Without such a process, there might
not be anyone to make health care decisions for, say, a person suffering from
dementia who has no caregiver. But while many guardianship cases go off without
a hitch, the system is also rife with opportunities for financial exploitation,
medical neglect, and the wrongful usurping of a competent person's
"Guardianship is a godsend and a gulag," says Erica Wood,
associate staff director of the American Bar Association's Commission on
Law and Aging. "It's a lifesaver and a life stopper. It's an
institution that we as a society need. But we need to make it better."
“You could be a shoe salesman at a five-and-dime store yesterday and a professional conservator or guardian today.”
The perils of guardianship first gained public notice in 1987, when a
platoon of Associated Press reporters fanned out across the United States,
reviewing 2,200 case files for a six-part investigative series. The reporters
uncovered "a dangerously burdened and troubled system" in which
judges were committing people to guardianships without first permitting them
access to attorneys or even hearings. They also discovered that "often, in
the eyes of the court, being old and spending money foolishly" were
criteria enough to warrant being placed in a guardianship. What's more,
there were few safeguards to ensure that guardians didn't abuse or steal
from their charges.
The AP series sparked congressional hearings, a national conference, and
legislative reforms in all 50 states. The new laws have strengthened due
process and instituted more careful monitoring by the courts. Judges also have
been instructed to rely less on labels like "senile" and
"incompetent" and more on real abilities to handle day-to-day
Still, according to critics, the legal reforms haven't always translated
into real-life improvements. Many guardianships continue to be assigned to
untrained professionals based solely on flimsy evidence, often without
methodical court hearings to determine the scope of the subject's
competence. And conservators and guardians continue to siphon five- and
six-figure sums from the bank accounts of the very people they are supposed to
be protecting. Sometimes that siphoning is pure theft; other times guardians
simply charge astronomical fees for their services.
In 2001, New York's Daily News reported about guardians who
billed their clients' estates $300 an hour for such routine services as
reviewing bank accounts. One guardian reportedly visited a client who was
celebrating her birthday, then billed her $850 for the social call. In many
cases, the client not only has to pay the guardian for his or her services, but
also must pay the guardian's attorney for time spent on the case.
Adding to the potential for abuse is the fact that there is no uniformity in
records states must keep. Consequently, no one knows exactly how widespread the
problems are. Many experts consider abuse rampant. Bob Aldridge, a Boise,
Idaho, elder-law attorney who testified recently on the issue before Congress,
reviewed 250 guardianships on behalf of the state bar association and Idaho
court system, uncovering more than 50 with "egregious" problems.
"These are not isolated, occasional blips," he says. "This
constitutes a significant portion of the cases out there. They were flat-out
Inez Carr never expected to become a legal statistic. Born in Kosciusko,
Mississippi, she had a difficult childhood. The family lived "with the
pan," relying on leftover food from the kitchens of the wealthy white
households where her mother worked as a maid. Like many black families living
in the Jim Crow South in the 1920s, Inez's family eventually migrated
north, first to Philadelphia, then to South Bend, Indiana, chasing economic
opportunities that rural Dixie failed to provide. After graduating from high
school at 23, she took cosmetology classes and found work at a local beauty
One day in 1947, Inez dropped by her mother's house for a visit. Her
mother rented out a bedroom, and that day Inez spotted the handsome brother of
her mother's boarder. His name was Carnell Roosevelt Carr, and he had just
returned home from a hitch in the Army. "I saw him, and that was it,"
she says. The only work Carnell could find in South Bend was sweeping hotel
floors, so he moved to San Francisco, where he had family and an opportunity to
work in a hospital. Inez followed a year later, and the couple married.
When they had saved enough money, the Carrs took a bold step for the 1950s
and bought a house in Pacific Heights, an exclusive district of
bougainvillea-covered Victorian homes. "We were the only African Americans
on this block," Inez recalls. "We expected to see signs all around
the next morning." In fact, there was no neighborhood outcry.
Today, the Carr home, valued around $1.4 million, is divided into three
apartments. The couple rent out the two upper floors, and Inez collects the
money and keeps the books. The Carrs live on the bottom floor, a sprawling
two-bedroom apartment packed with African art, antique furniture, and a
collection of baby dolls, Asian fans, and figurines.
Over the years, the Carrs have accumulated their share of medical problems.
Carnell has dementia and heart disease. Inez suffers from high blood pressure
and diabetes. Twice a day she measures her blood sugar, keeping meticulous
records of her levels. With the Jolivets' help, the couple were able to
juggle the constant demands of medications and doctor visits.
Then, in March 2002, Inez and Carnell received a visit from Carnell's
nephew, Ozell Carr, who had just learned that according to the Carrs' will
he was in line to split the Carr estate with Chris Jolivet. Accompanying the
nephew was his daughter, Pamela Kizer, who says she was immediately dismayed by
the condition of the apartment. "When you walked in the door, the house
had an odor to it," she says. "You couldn't eat on the kitchen
table for all the clutter. The room that I stayed in—you had to make a path to
the sofa bed. There were boxes in front of the heating registers." In
early June, Kizer called San Francisco's Adult Protective Services and
reported her observations. She also claimed that the Jolivets were trying to
financially exploit her great-uncle and his wife.
Kizer says her sole concern was for the Carrs' welfare. Inez suspected
other motives: She believed Kizer was trying to protect her father's
inheritance by accusing Chris Jolivet and his family of undue influence and
neglect. Regardless of Kizer's intentions, her call to APS triggered an
aggressive investigation—too aggressive, says Dennis Livingston, an attorney
hired by the Jolivets to help them deal with the situation. "Adult
Protective Services came in like a bull in a china shop," Livingston says.
"The presumption was that because Mrs. Carr was in her 90s, she
couldn't possibly be competent."