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"Widow Seeks New Guardian"

Original source:

Los Angeles Times

Helen Jones, who fought an unwanted conservator's control and spending, asks the court to appoint her step-grandson to the job.

By Evelyn Larrubia
Times Staff Writer
March 22, 2006

An 88-year-old widow who complained of being trapped for years under the unwanted and expensive care of San Bernardino's largest for-profit guardianship firm has asked a court to appoint her step-grandson as her new caretaker. Helen Jones said she hopes a judge will quickly approve the request.

"It's a happy ending," she said, showing off photos of her husband's relatives, with whom she had lost contact for decades until her story was published in The Times last year.

Mike Tomazin, 52, of Madera filed court papers to replace Melodie Scott, an entrepreneur who in 2002 sought and won court appointment as Jones' conservator, California's term for an adult's guardian.

Jones' court-appointed lawyer, Donnasue Smith Ortiz, said Scott has agreed to resign. Scott did not return calls seeking comment, but her attorney has said in the past that her client would step down for a "suitable" conservator.

Ortiz said a judge could rule as early as next week whether to grant Tomazin temporary appointment. A hearing on the permanent appointment has been set for April 21 in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Jones' story appeared in November as part of a four-part Times series on California's professional guardians. The investigation, based on a review of more than 2,400 cases, found a broken system that allowed for-profit operators to swiftly take control of the lives of senior citizens and disabled adults, often without the person's knowledge or consent.

Some professional conservators have used their powers to steal from their charges. Others have drained estates through large fees. When seniors or their relatives have sought to regain control, professional conservators have often fought back — and the elderly have been forced to pay the conservators' legal costs.

Three bills have been introduced in the state Legislature to repair some of the problems highlighted by the Times series.

Jones, a Midwesterner who suffered through the Depression in poverty, amassed a $560,000 nest egg through frugal living and saving the wages she earned in a string of factory and secretarial jobs. She drove rivets into World War II fighter planes, assembled neckties, stuffed bristles into Revlon nail-polish brushes and typed doctor's notes for the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Los Angeles.

Widowed after a short marriage in the 1970s, Jones was living alone in her modest Yucaipa house when Scott learned of her circumstances — and large bank accounts — and successfully petitioned in court for an emergency appointment as Jones' conservator.

Jones did not initially object, she said, because she had no idea that she would lose the right to control her finances and make decisions about her care.

Jones is a petite, spry woman who suffers from severe hearing loss and limited mobility because of a rare neurological disease that nearly left her paralyzed. Those physical limitations made living alone difficult, but she insists that she does not suffer from cognitive impairments that would make her unable to manage her own affairs. Her neighbors and friends also said they had seen no sign of mental deterioration.

Once appointed, Scott began spending Jones' money on care, home improvements and her own fees, which Jones felt were excessive. To date, Scott has spent more than $200,000 of Jones' savings.

"I don't have anything against her. I just don't like what she did — her way of taking money, charging for every phone call," Jones said. She has twice challenged Scott's financial reports in the San Bernardino court. A trial is set for next month on Scott's 2004 expenses and fees.

Jones repeatedly told judges that she wanted to run her own affairs, but once a conservatorship is in place, ending it is a lengthy and difficult process.

More than a year after her appointment, Scott claimed in court papers that Jones suffered from schizophrenia, a disease usually diagnosed during young adulthood. Jones denies having a mental illness and does not take prescription medications, other than for digestive problems.

Jones had no one to champion her cause. Neither she nor her brothers had children, and her last sibling died a year ago.

She was in her 50s when she married for the first and only time. Her husband was a neighbor and good friend, David Jones, who was in his 80s and whose second wife had died. The couple had plans to travel, but he fell ill and died three years later.

After his death, Helen Jones lost touch with his two children, David and Helen.

Contacted by The Times, her late husband's relatives were outraged by Jones' situation and vowed to help.

"I got a phone call from my mother, and she started telling me this long story and I said: You've got to be kidding me," Tomazin said. "Even though they were only together three years, as soon as we knew she needed help, here we are."

When he first visited Jones, she pulled out photos of him as a teenager, and Tomazin said he felt the bond of family. After several visits — and prodding by his parents — he agreed to take on the responsibility.

"I'm trustworthy. That's what it comes down to," said Tomazin, who owns a horse ranch and provides therapy for children with autism and Asperger's syndrome. "I'll take care of Helen. I'll fight very diligently for her."

He said that the 300-mile distance between his house and hers shouldn't be a problem. He runs his parents' trust, he said, which shows him that money management can be done from anywhere. He said keeping Jones' live-in caregivers and finding local, trustworthy contractors for any emergency repairs should bridge the gap.

"We'll get this back onto a normal, respectful footing to work for Helen. That's all she wants," Tomazin said. "She wants to be treated with respect and dignity."

Unless someone objects — or Scott refuses to step down — the process for Tomazin to take over should be fairly simple. Typically, a court employee would visit Jones, asking whether she wished her step-grandson to become her caretaker, and write a confidential report. A judge would then hold a hearing and make a ruling.

Under probate law, relatives have priority for appointment as conservators.

Tomazin's lawyer, Stan Teixeira of Fresno, said he expects it to be smooth sailing.

Jones said that knowing a relative is willing to step in has already made a difference.

"I'm more at ease. I don't have nightmares, like I used to, about [Scott's] stripping me down to the last penny and having to go into a rest home," Jones said. "I'm as happy as I'll ever be."

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