Whose Best Interests?

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On October 10 the probate court referred Hill to the Harris County Guardianship Program. It's one of just two county-run guardianship programs in Texas; the other is in Galveston.

Administered by Harris County Protective Services for Children and Adults, the program has a $2.6 million annual operating budget and employs 37 case managers to oversee more than 1,400 wards. Forty percent of the county's wards are over 60; one-third reside in nursing homes.

On October 20 Harris County assistant attorney Scott Hilsher sent Evans a certified letter. "Unless you take some action to intervene," Hilsher wrote, "this matter will be set for hearing...without further notice to you."

Four days later the Harris County Guardianship Program likewise sent Evans a certified letter informing him of the hearing that would decide his mother's fate.

Both letters returned to the county unopened; notices of delivery were unsigned.

"I got no letter, nothing," Evans says. "Why can they penalize me and take my mama away when I didn't ever know?"

What about the calls from the hospital telling him to pick up his mother?

"Aw, no," Evans counters. "No, no, no. Nah, nah. It didn't happen like that."

Evans claims he went to get his mother but the hospital just gave him papers to sign and would not release her.

Of course, it's possible that the son's account is not totally reliable.

"This wasn't a case of miscommunication," thunders Jan McLaughlin, director of the Harris County Guardianship Program. "The son had ample opportunity to come and get her."

On November 3 Hill was transferred to Lexington Place, where she says she unknowingly forfeited her monthly $826 Social Security check to the facility.

"I didn't read a thing," Hill says. "I didn't know what I was signing."

Evans says the lost income led to his phone being disconnected. He overdrew his bank account and feared eviction for falling behind on rent.

County officials have made some negative assumptions about Evans, despite the many years he provided for his mother.

"Some family members don't want to care for elderly relatives," suggests Estella Olguin, community relations director for Harris County Protective Services, regarding the case. "Then they realize they have to pay their own bills."

On December 12, six floors above downtown Houston in the Harris County Civil Justice building, Probate Court One Judge Russell Austin ignored Hill's pleas and officially declared her a ward. The hearing lasted maybe ten minutes. Neither Hill nor any of her family or friends attended.

Though it's easy to bitch about bumbling bureaucrats, it would seem in this case county officials followed protocol and did everything they were supposed to. Except they screwed up.

It isn't enough that the Harris County Guardianship Program mailed a single certified letter to Evans. The county, by law, must send such letters to "all adult children of a proposed ward," according to Section 633(d)(1) of the Texas Probate Code.

County officials, including McLaughlin, know Hill has three adult children: sons Marvin and Wilbert Evans and daughter Maxine Hill. County social worker Elizabeth Pena filed an "Affidavit of Effort to Locate Family" with the probate court that included all three names.

The county can be forgiven for not informing Wilbert Evans, who hasn't been seen by the family for 30 years. Maxine Hill, however, lives with her husband and child in Mansfield, Louisiana.

Pena recalls her meetings with Hill: "Every time I visited her, she cried." Pena also remembers being told about Maxine Hill living "somewhere in Louisiana," but claims that despite her best efforts she could not locate the daughter.

Pena's attempts must have been halfhearted at best since Maxine Hill can be readily found via a simple phone call to 4-1-1 directory assistance. Hers is the lone name that registers in a statewide search.

"We didn't know that," says McLaughlin, when informed by the Press.

Maxine Hill, a 49-year-old restaurant manager, was outraged when she learned her mother was made a ward. Had she been informed, she never would have let it happen.

"Mama always told me she didn't want to be put in no nursing home," she says. "I don't understand why they done it. I mean, I could see if she didn't have nobody else."

Growing up in one of Houston's most upscale neighborhoods, attending an elite private high school and socializing at exclusive country clubs has its disadvantages.

"Our world was insular and homogenized," says 36-year-old Robert Liddell, whose father Frank was a legendary trial lawyer and remains a partner at mega-firm Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP. "We pretty much got one perspective."

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Todd Spivak