Whose Best Interests?

Page 3 of 5

Margie Hill, hired as the family's housekeeper in 1976, opened their eyes to a life beyond their privileged upbringing. After all, the Liddell children were more likely to encounter a UFO than an African-American woman living paycheck-to-paycheck in a rental apartment.

Hill arrived at the family's 7,500-square-foot Tanglewood mansion widowed and in her early 40s. It was the first and only job she ever held. She stayed on for two decades and became a beloved member of the Liddell family.

Lise Putnam Liddell, the family's 71-year-old matriarch, describes Hill as hardworking, trustworthy and proud. "She had a dignity about her that you don't see often," she says.

Her 44-year-old daughter, a local singer and songwriter also named Lise, remembers Hill as lighthearted, gregarious and always fashionably dressed. "She'd hug us all the time and chide us when we needed it," she says.

Robert Liddell, now an adjunct English professor at Houston Community College, credits Hill for helping him get through his parents' protracted divorce. "She was a source of stability at a time that was troubled." he says. "She could have simply done a job and gone home. But she chose to care."

Hill still refers to Robert Liddell as her baby. His graduation picture from The Kinkaid School is prominently displayed on her living room wall.

Though Hill could no longer work after her stroke, Lise Putnam Liddell continued to provide her $800 a month. Her children gladly assumed this responsibility a couple years ago. Added to her social security check, the money afforded Hill and her son a modestly comfortable life.

As he often does around the holidays, Robert Liddell called Hill one day last fall. The phone was disconnected; he figured she missed a payment.

His sister Lise kept calling during the next several weeks. Worried, she decided to pay Hill a visit just before Christmas.

She ascended the stairs to Hill's apartment and rapped at the door. Evans invited her in, collapsed on a couch and broke into sobs. His mother had been taken away and he didn't understand why, he told her.

Evans explained that he had recently visited his mother at Lexington Place. He said administrator Thelma Broussard informed him that Lexington Place was her new home and that any questions should be addressed to the county.

This exchange occurred a week before Hill became a ward, according to county records.

Lise Liddell felt mortified and partially responsible for not acting sooner. She did not understand how this could have happened. She called her father, whose firm retains 400 attorneys. But they specialize in corporate law and anyway, offices were already shuttered for the holidays.

She went to Lexington Place to visit Hill, who immediately held out her arms and cried. Broussard confirmed the situation. "You have to call the county," she said, and provided a number to Hill's caseworker. Lise Liddell later complained to Broussard that the number went straight to voice mail with the message that the caseworker was away on vacation until January 2. Broussard's response: "You have to keep trying."

After the holidays, the Liddells retained attorney Bridget O'Toole Purdie from Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, who warned that the county may deny guardianship to Evans due to his health problems. Instead, she advised that the Liddells seek guardianship themselves.

So on January 9, after obtaining signed notarized statements from two of Hill's children, Lise Liddell filed a successor guardianship application with the probate court. As guardian, she would be responsible for Hill's health and finances. Medicare, she has learned, should cover sending a home health aide to look after Hill a few times a week.

The Liddells have visited Hill at Lexington Place almost every day for the last month. They bought Evans a new phone and padded his bank account to cover rent, utilities and day-to-day expenses.

"This should not be happening to Margie," Lise Putnam Liddell says. "We'll do whatever it takes to get her out."

In the case of Margie Hill, transferring guardianship to her loved ones should be a no-brainer.

After all, indigent guardianship programs are meant to serve those with no other options, says Terry Hammond, an El Paso-based attorney whose firm is devoted entirely to guardianship issues.

"From a good guardianship perspective, the priority should definitely be placed on those closest to the person who needs the assistance," says Hammond, who also serves as executive director of the National Guardianship Association, Inc. "Why should taxpayers be paying to finance a guardianship where there's someone willing to come in and do it for free?"

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Todd Spivak