Whose Best Interests?

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Jan McLaughlin, the Harris County Guardianship Program director, says she is "always supportive" of wards reuniting with their families. "I'm sorry that the family is in this predicament," McLaughlin says. "I understand the family is distressed."

Such condolences ring hollow since McLaughlin refuses to request an expedited hearing to transfer guardianship. "It's the court's decision," she says. "It needs to go through all the appropriate channels."

That could take several more weeks, maybe even months.

"Guardianship can be a lot easier to get into than to get out of," says Hammond, adding that contested guardianship cases can easily cost families more than $20,000. "Some family members just throw up their arms and say, 'You know, I cannot take on the government in trying to get control of my loved one's affairs.'"

Hill landed herself in this situation simply by getting sick. Oftentimes that's all it takes, according to Sara Aravanis, director of the National Center on Elder Abuse.

"Hospitalization is a significant turning point for many, many people," Aravanis says. "It brings more people into the situation, for good or for bad. There are more sentinels asking, 'Can this person's life be improved?'"

The probate court recently appointed LeDoux, formerly Hill's attorney ad litem, to now serve as her guardian ad litem.

The distinction between attorney ad litem and guardian ad litem is significant.

An attorney ad litem is charged with representing the proposed ward's interests to the court. A guardian ad litem, meanwhile, makes the all-important recommendation for who should assume guardianship.

The question is whether LeDoux's appointment as guardian ad litem presents a conflict of interest since she may have developed biases while formerly serving as Hill's attorney.

McLaughlin rejects this, saying LeDoux was named guardian ad litem to speed the process along since she already knew the facts of the case.

Reached by phone, LeDoux declined to comment on the status of her investigation as it is ongoing.

While LeDoux conducts interviews, runs criminal background checks and files the requisite paperwork, Hill remains warehoused at Lexington Place -- a facility not merely soul-killing but also physically dangerous.

Opened in 1967, Lexington Place is owned by Pinnacle Health Facilities, which operates a total of three nursing homes in Harris County and accepts residents insured by Medicare and Medicaid.

During the last year, state investigators have issued dozens of citations against Lexington Place for everything from patient neglect to fire-safety hazards, according to records from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which licenses and oversees the state's 1,122 private nursing homes.

Perhaps most distressing were citations given last March for failing to store poisons separately from all drugs and for not properly caring for residents needing special services such as injections, colostomies and respiratory care.

Lexington Place "failed to provide a safe and clean environment for residents, staff and visitors," according to the state's most recent report, filed in November 2006. "There were some deficiencies that caused residents actual harm or immediate jeopardy."

Hill has her own litany of complaints.

For one thing, she receives scant attention from nurses. "Nobody comes see about me," she groans. At home, Hill bathed every day. Lexington Place permits just two showers a week. For the last week, Hill says, the water heater has been broken and everyone is taking cold showers. And the food is awful. Spoiled by years of her son's homemade gumbo and slow-roasted chicken, she now picks at plates of cornbread and beans or boiled cabbage and fish sticks.

During a recent visit, Lise Liddell's friend offered to bring lunch. Hill requested a cheeseburger with all the fixings. It was the first meal she finished in weeks.

Marvin Evans often fantasizes about marching into Lexington Place, hoisting his mother out of bed, flagging a cab and taking her home.

"But I'm afraid they'll throw me in jail," he says.

His fear is justified; interference in the possession of a ward is a felony-level offense.

Evans is grateful for the financial help he receives from the Liddells. Without it, he figures his mother would have no choice but to spend her last years at Lexington Place.

The Liddells are paying their attorney a whopping $380 an hour to handle the case. Clearly many families lack the resources necessary to grapple with the county.

"We're repaying a debt," says Robert Liddell, who plans to continue to support Evans if he outlives his mother. "She was somebody who was always there when we needed her."

Maxine Hill says her mother is welcome to live with her in Louisiana. But she decided to let the Liddells seek guardianship so her mother and brother can continue to care for one another in their own place.

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Todd Spivak