Whose Best Interests?

Wearing slippers, sweats and a satin nightcap on this December afternoon, 76-year-old Margie Hill dangles her legs off the side of her twin bed and mimics the other residents: She glazes her eyes, pokes out her tongue and lowers her face to her chest.

"I hate this place," Hill says. "I can't stand to be around all these old people."

Hill occupies Room 102 at Lexington Place Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, a 200-bed private facility set along Houston's North Loop. She has three bunkmates and zero privacy in a room with naked walls, shabby furniture and buzzing fluorescent lights.

Three months ago Hill lived at home with her son in a cozy, well-furnished apartment. But after checking herself into a hospital, she was mistakenly deemed abandoned, shipped off to two different nursing homes and forcibly made a ward of the county.

Her normal life officially ended last month when Harris County became her guardian and exiled her to Lexington Place, a veritable firetrap that has been slapped with no fewer than 33 citations for violating federal and state standards in just the last ten months. This was done in Hill's best interests, county officials say.

Now the very-best-case scenario she can hope for is that guardianship will be transferred to a loved one. Family and friends including Houston's prominent, well-heeled Liddell family, which for many years employed Hill as its housekeeper have spent weeks butting heads with bureaucrats in an expensive, unsuccessful effort to reclaim her independence.

"My mother doesn't need this," says Marvin Evans, Hill's son. "It's like the county just swooped in and snatched her away."

Forbidden from leaving Lexington Place, Hill almost never goes out of her room. The dank, sour-smelling corridors constantly crowded with elderly men and women staring blankly from their wheelchairs only further depress her.

So she lies in bed and waits. She waits for meals and baths, afternoon soap operas and visits from family and friends. But, mostly, she waits to get the hell out.

"Home," she moans in a quiet, plaintive voice, stretching the vowel into an agonizing ohhhhh, as if the word itself inflicts pain. "I want to go home."

For 16 years Margie Hill and Marvin Evans have shared a small walk-up apartment just west of the Heights. The second-floor entryway is thick with potted and hanging plants. Inside, it's comfortable and warm with teal carpet, cloth couches and scores of framed photographs on the tables, mantels and walls.

Like his mother, Evans graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, dubbed the oldest black school in Texas. He served two years in the army then returned to Houston to work at various jobs in local hospitals, including a long stint as a mental health technician for Harris County.

Also like his mother, Evans has several health problems. Unemployed for many years, he suffers from chronic back pain and depression. He keeps a heating pad on his bed and a dozen pill bottles beside his pillow.

With a toothpick stuck to his lip, the lanky, stoop-shouldered 54-year-old nonetheless insists, "I'm not so disabled I can't take care of my mama."

Hill's health went south after her stroke ten years ago. She stopped working and frequently fell ill. Evans bathed her, prepared meals and maintained the apartment, which he keeps fastidiously clean and tidy.

Last June, after having some trouble breathing, Hill checked herself into Memorial Hermann Hospital. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

Since Evans doesn't drive, he walked nearly three miles several times a week to visit.

Hospital officials claim they eventually contacted Evans and informed him that his mother was ready to be discharged, but he never showed. Evans denies this.

At the end of the month Hill was transferred to a skilled nursing facility. Evans visited her there, too, though less frequently because it was farther away and harder for him to reach.

Administrators at Memorial Hermann Continuing Care tried to contact Evans but his phone was disconnected. So they reported to Harris County Probate Court that Hill had been abandoned.

On September 1 Dr. Stanton Moldovan recommended the court appoint a guardian, citing Hill's heart failure, diabetes and dementia. Moldovan labeled her mentally incompetent and "totally without capacity."

Indeed, throughout county records, Hill is described as "An Incapacitated Person," "Incapacitated" or, simply, "Incap."

Two weeks later, the court appointed licensed social worker Anthi Pavlicek to investigate. Pavlicek recommended the county take permanent guardianship even though "Margie Hill did not think it was necessary," according to her report. Hill made the same appeal to Josette LeDoux, her attorney ad litem.

Hill's resistance is significant, since before appointing a guardian, a judge must "give due consideration to the preference indicated by the incapacitated person," according to Section 689 of the Texas Probate Code.