After three months, six court hearings and nearly $30,000 in attorney and nursing home fees, 77-year-old Margie Hill has finally escaped the grip of Harris County and returned to live with her devoted son Marvin Evans.
“I cried so much in that nursing home; I hated it,” Hill says. “I love being home; Marvin takes the best care of me; it's so nice to have all my things around me.”
Late last year, Harris County officials mistakenly deemed Hill abandoned at a local hospital and forcibly made her a ward of the county, then opposed family and friends who came forward to care for her [“Whose Best Interests?” by Todd Spivak, January 25, 2007].
Luckily for Hill, she had the backing of Houston's prominent Liddell family, which formerly employed her as its housekeeper. Patriarch Frank Liddell is a partner at corporate law firm Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP.
If not for her well-connected benefactors, Hill almost certainly would have spent the rest of her life in Lexington Place Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, a dreary and unsafe facility along Houston's North Loop.
County officials sent Hill to Lexington Place and fought hard to keep her there. Doctors later found the care she received at Lexington Place was actually harming her. A diabetic, Hill left the facility with dangerously high blood-sugar levels.
“Her medications were not being managed well,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lee, medical director at The Hampton at Post Oak, a private nursing facility in the Galleria area that housed Hill for a few weeks before she went home. “She was overmedicated for her heart and undermedicated for her diabetes.”
This comes as no surprise since Lexington Place received dozens of citations in the last year for flaunting federal and state standards, including for “not properly caring for residents needing special services,” according to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the state's private nursing homes.
Hill's case illustrates the vast divide between the way indigent guardianship programs are supposed to work and the way they do. And it raises the question of how often families lose custody of a loved one because they lack the money and know-how to grapple with the county.
“The county looks at these cases very blindly,” says Lise Liddell, who is now Hill's legal guardian. “The system designed to help people is not really helping them.”
At Probate Court One, in the Harris County Civil Justice building in downtown Houston, key decisions are often made behind a closed door. But sometimes the door is left cracked open.
On the morning of January 29, a reporter from the Houston Press spent 45 minutes listening in on a private meeting about Margie Hill held just outside the courtroom before a scheduled hearing. Attendees included Scott Hilsher, assistant attorney for Harris County; Josette LeDoux, Hill's court-appointed guardian ad litem; and Bridget O'Toole Purdie, an attorney for Bracewell & Giuliani LLP retained by the Liddells.
A couple days earlier, the Press had reported that Hill's predicament was caused by “bumbling bureaucrats” who recommended her for the Harris County Guardianship Program without first informing all of her children, as required by state law. County case worker Elizabeth Pena claimed she could not locate Hill's daughter in Louisiana, though Maxine Hill can be readily found simply by calling 4-1-1 directory assistance.
Hilsher and LeDoux discussed the Press story during their private meeting.
“I abhor red tape and I'm not going to manufacture red tape,” Hilsher said. “I am not one of those government people. I hate government bureaucrats and I refuse to be one.”
LeDoux remarked on a specific detail in the Press story, that Evans, an army veteran with physical disabilities, walked three miles a day to visit his mother at Lexington Place. “He could take a bus,” LeDoux said.
Hilsher made clear that Hill should not be allowed to go home: “She is not a candidate to be discharged from a nursing home.”
LeDoux expressed extreme reservations about Evans, though she has never met or spoken to him. “I will never support the fact that Mr. Evans will be responsible for her care,” she said. “I think he has her snowed. She is so softhearted he got her snowed. I question his sincerity.”
For 16 years, Hill and Evans have shared a cozy walk-up apartment just west of the Heights. Evans, who has worked as a mental health technician, single-handedly nursed his mother back to health after her stroke in 1999.
“The people at the county are a bunch of fools,” Evans says. “They go on assumptions that are all wrong.”
LeDoux, who received $125 an hour in taxpayer money to work on the Hill case, submitted an 11-page report to county probate court Judge Russell Austin at the January 29 hearing, explaining why Hill should remain a ward of the county.
In the report, LeDoux chastised the Liddells for giving Hill “false hope” by making assurances that she would one day return home. LeDoux also repeatedly impugned Lise Liddell's “sincerity” in her efforts to become Hill's guardian.
LeDoux was unimpressed that Lise Liddell had visited Hill at the nursing home nearly every day, attended all court hearings and padded Evans's bank account with several thousand dollars, just as her family had done for many years.
“Financial assistance does not demonstrate the level of involvement required,” LeDoux wrote, adding that the Liddells should give money to the county if they wished to transfer Hill to a better facility. The county had already intercepted Hill's monthly $826 Social Security check, redirecting it to Lexington Place.
LeDoux accused the son of being motivated by money. “Mr. Evans has demonstrated that he places his dependence on Ms. Hill's income above her welfare,” she wrote.
And LeDoux concluded in her report that the county should remain guardian even against Hill's wishes. “Providing [Hill] with what she desires may not ultimately be in her best interest,” LeDoux wrote.
Judge Austin apparently was also hip to the Press story. He pushed Hill's case to the bottom of the docket, then called Hilsher, LeDoux and Purdie back to his private chambers for a 30-minute pow-wow before proceeding.
In a rare rebuff to a guardian ad litem's recommendation, Austin ignored LeDoux's report, cleared the way for Lise Liddell to become guardian two weeks later and on March 19 officially set Hill free.
“The judge told our lawyer he was fast-tracking the case because of the Press article,” says Lise Liddell, adding that Austin also inquired about her father's law firm. “He didn't want the county to be portrayed negatively.”
A couple days after the hearing, Marvin Evans and a friend carried Margie Hill upstairs to her bedroom, where she lay surrounded by photographs of family and friends.
“She looked like a little girl,” Lise Liddell says, “with the covers under her chin and the biggest smile on her face.”
Home health care nurses now visit Hill several times a week, paid for by Medicare insurance. Dr. James Skelton, who specializes in internal medicine and long-term care, has made house calls to examine Hill. He praises Evans for taking excellent care of her by cooking, cleaning and administering medications.
“Everything here is just right for my mama,” Evans says. “I've been doing this for years; ain't nothing different.”
Evans says he is thrilled to have his mother back home where she belongs. But he shudders to think of other cases that end less happily.
“The county degraded my mama,” he says. “They took an elderly lady and threw her into any old nursing home.”
The Liddells spent $20,000 on attorney fees and $8,500 upgrading Hill to a better nursing home. They are still waiting to get Hill's Social Security check transferred back into her bank account.
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It took weeks to undo the damage done at Lexington Place and get Hill's blood-sugar levels back under control. And it took months to navigate through red tape before the county would even allow Hill to leave Lexington Place. “At first, I thought we'd have her out of that joint in a week,” Lise Liddell says.
Judge Austin and attorneys Hilsher and LeDoux did not respond to interview requests for this article.
“We handled the [Hill] case like we would normally handle other guardianship cases,” Estella Olguin, community relations director for Harris County Protective Services, wrote the Press in a recent e-mail.
Olguin credited the Press for teaching the county about a valuable resource: 4-1-1 directory assistance. “As a result of this case,” Olguin wrote, “we did learn that it is sometimes possible to locate people in other parts of the country by dialing information.”