I felt like I was in a grave buried alive

Or are we supposed to be defiant in the face of death and exalt in the joy of our continued living?

Also be sure to read the follow up piece to this one. It’s an interview with a person who works on these type of elder abuse cases regularly in Arizona.

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“There are some evil people in this world,” Bill Mesloh said in a Las Vegas court in 2019. “And April Parks is a predator of the worst kind.”

He and a number of Parks’ other victims had gathered to give statements at the grifting elder legal guardian’s sentencing. 

“She was not a guardian to me,” Barbara Ann Neely said. Like Mesloh she had been kept from her family against her will through Parks’ machinations. “She did not protect me. As each day passed, I felt like I was in a grave, buried alive.”

Parks who had served as the legal guardian to dozens and dozens of people like them pleaded guilty to exploitation and theft and perjury charges. She was sentenced to between sixteen and forty years in prison as the Las Vegas Journal Review reported. Her business partner and husband were also sentenced to eighteen and two to five years respectively.

If you spend any time reading about the stories of the people whose lives Parks took over like a parasite — all through ostensibly legal means before she got caught going “too far” — or if you watch the new film I Care A Lot —a fictionalized look at the type of elder abuse at work here — you might think that’s not nearly harsh enough a punishment. Even as someone who is decidedly no fan of incarceration I’m going to go ahead and make an exception for these people. Let them go rot in fucking hell.

The utterly maddening film does a good job of engendering that same feeling of vile disgust in the viewer (for better or worse) about its main character played by Rosamund Pike. In fact I can’t remember watching something that pissed me off more thoroughly from stem to stern than this in a long time. Just sitting there the entire time fucking red-assed and steaming thinking “I really really hope Russian mafia boss Peter Dinklage tortures this monster to death.” Yes the Russian mafia and Peter Dinklage are also involved. I’m pretty sure that part wasn’t based on real life but who knows.

(I also couldn’t help but wonder the whole time I was watching: Wait am I a fucking misogynist? Would I hate this character this much if she were a man?)

“Imagine opening your door one day and there is a person standing there holding a piece of paper that gives them total legal power over you,” the film’s director J Blakeson said of the premise. “That idea terrified me—and seemed very relevant right now. It plugged into themes that I am interested in exploring —themes about the power of authority, about people vs profit, control vs freedom, humanity vs bureaucracy.”

It wasn’t just the particulars of the elder abuse showcased in the film that had me fuming but also the choice to present Pike’s sociopathic guardian character as a steely unflappable Girl Boss (which admittedly might be an intentional irony). Unlike with other similar morally compromised anti-hero types in this mode however there was absolutely nothing redeeming or even remotely human-seeming about her. She was essentially a Terminator. The effect was like watching Capitalism in corporeal form. Here’s Capitalism working out at the gym. Here’s Capitalism having a nice romantic moment with her lesbian partner. Here’s Capitalism tossing bodies into the wood chipper. But with panache!

Anyway that’s all intentional on the part of the director. We’re supposed to be revolted by Pike’s character. It was just never clear to me if we were also supposed to be titillated and excited by her ambition.

Regardless of the successes or failures of I Care A Lot as a piece of filmmaking the thing that really got me was that as I was watching her boot one old person after another into a Kafkaesque nightmare — all with the support of a complicit judge and corrupt doctors and care workers — I was even more enraged because I knew in my bones without having ever looked into it that as bad as this all seemed in fiction it probably wasn’t even that far removed from how it all works in reality. Turns out it’s not! This shit happens all the time and some form of it is legal-ish enough in basically every state in the country.

Essentially how this all goes is that when an older person “can no longer take of themselves” — a very subjective concept ripe for abuse on its face — a guardian will be appointed by a court. Ideally this will be one of their children or someone who actually gives a shit about them. When such a person isn’t available — or even when they are and they can be successfully boxed out by someone amoral enough to do it like Parks in real life or Pike’s character in the film — a professional guardian will be granted control of the elder’s entire life at which point they will dump them in a care facility confused but often too scared to do much about it. And besides if they do happen to “go crazy” and cause too big of a stink during the ordeal of being uprooted and drugged and essentially imprisoned well then that’s just more evidence that they can’t care for themselves after all. This is all for the best the system says. Look how erratically they’re behaving. We’d hate for anything bad to happen to them.

More importantly for the grift once the old folks are sent away the guardian now has legal control of their assets like their homes which they are then free to sell (and take a commission for). Naturally wealthier elders are more desirable marks in the scheme. Especially ones with little or no close family left. Guardians too are allowed to charge the ward in their care “reasonable fees” for literally anything they do for them.

A recent episode of Dirty Money also looked into this issue. 

“As Dirty Money revealed, in states like Texas, guardians are entitled to earn commissions on sales of their wards' assets, on top of drawing wages for themselves, assistants, and lawyers,” Gabrielle Bruney wrote in Esquire of the episode. “Abuses have been reported for decades; in 2001, the New York Times wrote of one lawyer who served as guardian for senior citizens. He brought a birthday cake to one ward's nursing home and charged her estate $850 for the visit. On another occasion, he took her to buy an ice cream cone and charged her $1,275.”

It’s essentially treating old people like a fossil fuel baron might consider a plot of unspoiled wilderness: Mine the shit out of it until it’s tapped then move on to the next one. 

“Under the guise of benevolent paternalism, guardians seemed to be creating a kind of capitalist dystopia: people’s quality of life was being destroyed in order to maximize their capital,” Rachel Aviv wrote in this thorough and sick-making piece “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights” in the New Yorker in 2017 in which Parks is a central character. 

“Over the years, guardianship law has been misapplied, misused, and sometimes just plain manipulated, until it has become a threat to the health and wealth to our elderly and disabled citizens,” the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse writes on their site.

Unlawful and abusive guardianships and conservatorships can ensnare the most vulnerable people in a larger and larger trawling net, now including those merely physically ‘incapacitated!’  It can be a feeding trough for unethical lawyers and other ‘fiduciaries’ appointed by the courts to protect, but a growing number of whom become nothing more than predators.

Wards in these circumstances, are victimized under the deception of protection. Strangers are often given total and absolute control of life, liberty, and property of their wards, including being left defenseless and subject to neglect, abuse and/or exploitation by the very people chosen to protect them; they become invisible and voiceless.

Studies within the past few years by the U.S. Government Accountability Office have determined that nowhere near enough about this problem is known and the data can often be hard to come by. Recently the Uniform Law Commission has drafted model legislation to stem the problem. Two of its authors wrote about it recently in The Hill with I Care A Lot as a news peg.

“The act bars courts (absent extraordinarily limited circumstances) from imposing guardianships over a person who was not present at the court proceeding,” they write. Oh yeah I forgot to mention that part. A lot of times all of the legal business involved here happens without the elder person even present or with any idea that it’s going on behind their backs. The schemers can just say some shit like uh they’re too sick to be here your honor and the judge goes ok that is fine.

This legislation would change that.

If the person cannot come to court, the court must go to the person — even if that means holding court in the individual’s hospital room. The act also limits the ability of guardians to make major decisions — such as selling a person’s home, placing them in a nursing home or blocking visitors — without explicit court permission. In addition, it contains a variety of provisions that would substantially enhance court monitoring of guardians. And it gives family and friends new ways to keep tabs on guardians and bring problems to the attention of the court and others who could help.

In 2018, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging issued a report urging every state to adopt the model act. Only two — Washington and Maine — have so far. Instead, state legislatures typically ignore the issue or pursue piecemeal reforms. Guardianship just hasn’t been a “hot issue” politically — and those who seek to reform guardianship law have faced opposition from cash-strapped courts and attorneys who have grown (perhaps too) comfortable with the status quo.   

Not absolutely bent out of your mind with rage yet? Read the opening to the New Yorker piece here below. That should do the trick.

For years, Rudy North woke up at 9 a.m. and read the Las Vegas Review-Journal while eating a piece of toast. Then he read a novel—he liked James Patterson and Clive Cussler—or, if he was feeling more ambitious, Freud. On scraps of paper and legal notepads, he jotted down thoughts sparked by his reading. “Deep below the rational part of our brain is an underground ocean where strange things swim,” he wrote on one notepad. On another, “Life: the longer it cooks, the better it tastes.”

Rennie, his wife of fifty-seven years, was slower to rise. She was recovering from lymphoma and suffered from neuropathy so severe that her legs felt like sausages. Each morning, she spent nearly an hour in the bathroom applying makeup and lotions, the same brands she’d used for forty years. She always emerged wearing pale-pink lipstick. Rudy, who was prone to grandiosity, liked to refer to her as “my amour.”

On the Friday before Labor Day, 2013, the Norths had just finished their toast when a nurse, who visited five times a week to help Rennie bathe and dress, came to their house, in Sun City Aliante, an “active adult” community in Las Vegas. They had moved there in 2005, when Rudy, a retired consultant for broadcasters, was sixty-eight and Rennie was sixty-six. They took pride in their view of the golf course, though neither of them played golf.

Rudy chatted with the nurse in the kitchen for twenty minutes, joking about marriage and laundry, until there was a knock at the door. A stocky woman with shiny black hair introduced herself as April Parks, the owner of the company A Private Professional Guardian. She was accompanied by three colleagues, who didn’t give their names. Parks told the Norths that she had an order from the Clark County Family Court to “remove” them from their home. She would be taking them to an assisted-living facility. “Go and gather your things,” she said.

Rennie began crying. “This is my home,” she said.

One of Parks’s colleagues said that if the Norths didn’t comply he would call the police. Rudy remembers thinking, You’re going to put my wife and me in jail for this? But he felt too confused to argue.

Parks drove a Pontiac G-6 convertible with a license plate that read “crtgrdn,” for “court guardian.” In the past twelve years, she had been a guardian for some four hundred wards of the court. Owing to age or disability, they had been deemed incompetent, a legal term that describes those who are unable to make reasoned choices about their lives or their property. As their guardian, Parks had the authority to manage their assets, and to choose where they lived, whom they associated with, and what medical treatment they received. They lost nearly all their civil rights.

Without realizing it, the Norths had become temporary wards of the court. Parks had filed an emergency ex-parte petition, which provides an exception to the rule that both parties must be notified of any argument before a judge. She had alleged that the Norths posed a “substantial risk for mismanagement of medications, financial loss and physical harm.” She submitted a brief letter from a physician’s assistant, whom Rennie had seen once, stating that “the patient’s husband can no longer effectively take care of the patient at home as his dementia is progressing.” She also submitted a letter from one of Rudy’s doctors, who described him as “confused and agitated.”

Rudy and Rennie had not undergone any cognitive assessments. They had never received a diagnosis of dementia. In addition to Freud, Rudy was working his way through Nietzsche and Plato. Rennie read romance novels.

Parks told the Norths that if they didn’t come willingly an ambulance would take them to the facility, a place she described as a “respite.” Still crying, Rennie put cosmetics and some clothes into a suitcase. She packed so quickly that she forgot her cell phone and Rudy’s hearing aid. After thirty-five minutes, Parks’s assistant led the Norths to her car. When a neighbor asked what was happening, Rudy told him, “We’ll just be gone for a little bit.” He was too proud to draw attention to their predicament. “Just think of it as a mini-vacation,” he told Rennie.

After the Norths left, Parks walked through the house with Cindy Breck, the owner of Caring Transitions, a company that relocates seniors and sells their belongings at estate sales. Breck and Parks had a routine. “We open drawers,” Parks said at a deposition. “We look in closets. We pull out boxes, anything that would store—that would keep paperwork, would keep valuables.” She took a pocket watch, birth certificates, insurance policies, and several collectible coins.

Find the rest here. It’s long but it’s worth your time.

If you missed this Hell World from the other day you should read it. It was “pretty good man.”

Relatedly:

Jack Crosbie at Discourse Blog was kind enough to interview me earlier this week about my book. The bulk of the interview is behind their paywall but you can read some of it here. Please consider giving them a subscription they’re doing good work in the vein of Splinter the site that they grew out of which was in turn the site that grew out of Gawker.

You have this metaphor early on in the book that death is like the capital of Uruguay. We all know of it but can’t quite remember or think about it. But now, for me, a year into this I don’t know if I’m ever going to forget that it’s Montevideo. When did that feeling of mortality really sink in for you?

I like really surprised myself how seriously I took it, right from the start. My wife is too. Michelle, in the background: “Still shocked, every day.”

But once I started to see what it was like to die from this shit, I was like, I don't want to do that. In a lot of my writing and in the books I talk about wanting to die a lot and depression and suicidal ideation and stuff, and it’s finally occurred to me after like a year of not doing anything that I guess I don’t want to die. Because I’m really scared of dying from this, and if I really didn’t care either way I wouldn’t have taken it seriously. And it kind of put things in perspective for me. That’s not to make light of those types of feelings that I and many people have, but it’s almost been reaffirming in a way. I want to make it through this. I want all of us to make it through this. And sadly 500 fucking thousand of us have not. That number is impossible to think about. 500,00 people. Like, do you grasp it? 

No. No way. As soon as we start talking about numbers of people who would be at like, I dunno, a reasonably large music festival or something, I have no concept of how many people that is. 

It’s the old cliche of “a million deaths is a statistic.” Like how are we not… how am I just chilling out right now, like, I’m doing an interview for my book, after that I’m going to eat some cheddar cheese and these crisp crackers I’ve got right now. Like what is that? Is there something wrong with us? Or is freaking out all the time also the wrong answer? And I guess if anything, that's what my writing is trying to figure out. Where is the space between that? Are we supposed to be curled up in a ball all day all the time? Or are we supposed to be defiant in the face of death and exalt in the joy of our continued living?

Here’s a good piece from our pal Patrick Hruby who I’ve spoken to a couple times in here on labor issues around college sports.

Ok that’s all for today goodbye. Here’s one piece of actual good news for the road: