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Norma Carpenter, a nurse and school board member, visited her 82-year-old mother regularly at a personal care home in Indiana County. The two would walk hand in hand through the home, stopping to hug each other. 

Then, in October 2012, Norma was banned from visiting or calling her mother, Mary Little, who has dementia. Her visits, she was told, left her mother sad and depressed.

In December, Norma discovered that her mother had been moved nearly 100 miles away to a Fayette County nursing home.

All of these decisions were made by a court-appointed guardian.

“It’s terrible. I mean, you can’t see the person who loved you and raised you and she needs us now more than ever,” Norma said.

Pennsylvania is fourth in the country in terms of its elderly population, and as the state’s more than 3.3 million Baby Boomers join the ranks of the elderly, state courts and welfare systems will be put to the test. Guardianships are especially open to abuse because there is little regulation or oversight.

Examining guardianship is a priority in the state, with both the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania conducting studies. While guardianships are needed for those who can no longer care for themselves, they also require individuals to surrender all their rights -- in some cases to a total stranger.

Norma said she was elbowed out of being her mother’s caregiver because of a feud with her brother. She is not alone.

Does your loved one have a court-appointed guardian? Share your experience.

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Guardians are often appointed for the elderly or disabled because of family squabbles. And for many, the conflicts are never resolved.

In Norma’s case, an Orphans’ Court judge in Indiana County appointed Distinctive Human Services, a nonprofit agency in Johnstown, as guardian for Mary.

From there, an agency caseworker had the power to decide where she lived, what she ate, what medical treatment she received, and who she saw.

Ellen Hamilton, executive director of Distinctive Human Services, said all the measures taken were in Mary’s best interest and that Norma is now allowed supervised visits.

“You’ve got an elderly, frail woman who’s being torn between children, who has had her life turned upside down and thrown all about the neighborhood,” Hamilton said. “She doesn’t know how to make this controversy end.”

Rita Denmark, 82, walking on the beach in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., in 2009. For the past five years, Rita, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, has been a ward of a Florida guardian. (Photo courtesy of Holly Peffer)


Grace Connors posed during a day out with her granddaughter, Keely Eve Byrnes, in the early 1990s -- about a decade before she was placed under guardianship. Grace died in 2006 at 85. (Photo courtesy of Mary Claire Connors)

An industry with little scrutiny

The National Center for State Courts estimated there were 1.5 million active guardianships in the U.S. in 2011. In Pennsylvania, the courts decided more than 30,000 guardianship cases between 2000 and 2011.

Some cases reviewed by PublicSource show the difficulties that guardianships often bring. According to court documents and personal accounts:

  • In late 2007, two of Rita Denmark’s children filed for guardianship of their mother in different states -- one in Pennsylvania, where Rita was a lifelong resident, another in Florida. The dispute came to a head while Rita, who has dementia, was visiting her son in Florida. Attorneys suggested an independent guardian serve for a short time. Now, Rita has been a ward of a guardian in Port Orange, Fla., for more than five years. Her daughter, Holly Peffer of McKean County, has been trying to bring her 82-year-old mother home.The guardian has billed nearly $94,000 from Rita’s estate. “I had no idea how dangerous guardianship was,” Holly said.
  • Three people brought Grace Connors, who was suffering from dementia, from California to Pennsylvania in 2001. One of them obtained a fraudulent power of attorney to control her assets. Daughter Mary Claire Connors, who had cared for her mother in California, traveled east to reclaim her, but a Luzerne County judge appointed a nonprofit agency as guardian. Mary Connors said that, under guardianship, her mother’s estate was depleted and she was not allowed to visit without supervision. She said she spent at least $100,000 and went bankrupt trying to get her mother back. Grace died in 2006 at age 85. Guardianship, Mary said, is “ownership of a human being …. There is no escape.”
  • Problems can also occur when the guardian is a family member. Shelley Kuziak of Columbia County said she was the primary caregiver for her mother, Miriam Kuziak, for several years. But Shelley’s sister became guardian in 2006. The sisters’ opinions on how to care for their mother differed. Shelley said she repeatedly fought in court for visitation after being accused of coercing her mother to accept medical treatment. She said she was not permitted to visit her mother in the years leading up to her 2008 death at age 77.

Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, said the group hears stories daily about people who can afford home care being forced into facilities and their assets liquidated; wives being denied a say in the medical treatment of husbands; and family photos and heirlooms trashed or sold.

Guardianships can be a lifeline for people who aren't being cared for properly, as in the case of 96-year-old Mary Jane James who has Alzheimer’s and cannot speak. Mary Jane’s daughter, Carolyn James, was caught abusing her mother on an open feed from a webcam, according to May reports in the Scranton Times-Tribune. Carolyn was charged with assault, neglect and terroristic threats, the paper reported.

Lack of oversight is repeatedly cited as guardianship’s biggest problem.

Renoire said the lax oversight has allowed the unscrupulous to manipulate a good law -- meant to protect the elderly and others from abuse and neglect -- into a profitable industry. Too often, guardianship “promises to protect them into indigence,” she said.

In April, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court formed the Elder Law Task Force to study “growing problems” with guardianship by considering the qualifications of guardians and how they are monitored. The group is scheduled to report in mid-2014.

In 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging chose the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), a Philadelphia advocacy group, to study guardianship. CARIE was paid $176,000 for the study.

The department couldn’t say when it would release the study, but Diane Menio, the CARIE director and a task-force member, said they recommended developing an office to train and monitor guardians.

Most states, including Pennsylvania, don’t keep tabs on how many residents have guardians. However, individual county courts typically have an idea. For example, about 3,000 people in Allegheny County have guardians, and there were about 4,000 wards in Bucks County as of 2012.>

As of late 2010, a Government Accountability Office report said, only 11 states required professional guardians to be certified. It’s unclear how many professional guardians are in Pennsylvania because there is no licensing or certification process.

Janice Kunak of Westmoreland County has been a guardian for more than 30 years. She is currently a guardian for 20 people, ages 51 to 88. Many suffer from dementia. All are in care facilities.

The guardian’s duties include visiting, dealing with doctors, shopping for clothes, choosing where the person will live and making sure it’s safe and clean, she said.

“They need a voice,” she said. “A lot of it is ethical. What would you want someone to do on behalf of you?”

Kunak charges $65 an hour, which is a court-approved fee, but for wards on medical assistance, she receives $100 a month. “It’s a flat fee, whether you do a thousand things for them or you do nothing,” she said.

Mary Little’s guardianship

Mary Little was an antique collector, a youth group leader and a church board member. She never left the house without her hair and clothes just so.

When she showed up at a doctor’s appointment on the wrong day, confused and upset, her doctor asked her to repeat a few words and the name of the President.

She couldn’t.

Norma holds up a portrait of her mother, Mary Little, in her youth. Little, now 82 and suffering from dementia, was placed in a nursing home by a legal guardian. (Photo by Halle Stockton/PublicSource)

Aging Services in Indiana, Pa. -- an agency designated by the Department of Aging to provide protective services to older adults -- got word from the doctor and petitioned the Orphans’ Court for emergency intervention.

The judge is asked to determine whether a person is able to make sound decisions about finances, health and safety. Guardians can also be appointed for minors and disabled adults.

A guardian can be a friend, family member or a professional. Full background checks are not required.

The court decides what fees guardians can collect.

Distinctive Human Services, according to court documents, receives $100 a month from the Department of Public Welfare and charges Mary’s estate $80 an hour for services and mileage reimbursement.

Steve Little, Mary’s son, was appointed guardian of her finances. He declined to comment for this story.

Both guardians of the person and estate are required to file annual reports.

Last year, the Bucks County Register of Wills, for example, discovered 392 guardians weren’t submitting reports. About 100 of those were still delinquent in late July, said Trish Murphy, the Register’s second deputy.

The court can review a guardianship at any time and may choose to revise, remove or sanction the guardian.

Norma Carpenter, 55, would have to ask for the court to review her complaint that her mother was moved so far away that it is too costly for her to visit.

She believes her mother is being isolated and her assets depleted under an unnecessary guardianship, she said. But her main concern -- getting her mother moved to a closer facility -- is being considered by Distinctive Human Services.

“I should be taking care of her after she took care of me for so many years and was such a good grandmother,” she said. “We want to do what families are supposed to do.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or at


A daughter's loss

In 2012, Norma Carpenter was informed by a court-appointed guardian that she could no longer visit her mother at a personal care home in Indiana, Pa.


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  • Thank you for shedding the light on what our courts and mainstream media hides. It is not always family and that there is in fact outsiders. complete strangers, government control machines making decisons for our loved ones. Decisions that are not what our loved ones would decide if they could or allowed and most cases ignored. There is no accountability for the appointed guardian or GAL. How could they know what your loved would want? How could a court rule against family based on hearsay, fabrications, myths and speculations with out any facts. A persons life is in the hands of a judge, Good and bad, the system has both. Victims and their familes suffer for years and some even after the death of their loved ones may never heal or feel whole again. My heart aches for the true victims and their familes. Is this about love or the money? - by Sara Harvey on August 4, 2013 - 9:19am
  • Thank you, Halle Stockton, for shining a bright light into the darkness of guardianship abuse. We are pleased to see the state of Pennsylvania examining this important issue which affects not just people who have elderly parents, but also every one of us who is forced to pick up the Medicaid tab after wards of the state have been "protected" into indigence under the guise of protection. Guardianship abuse IS elder abuse. Join NASGA and help us seek reform nationally! - by Elaine Renoire on August 4, 2013 - 10:11am
  • Haley you are a God Sent to any of us that are living this hell. As a former Home Health and Hospice nurse I have seen such deplorable and unsafe condition where the elderly resided. We would report them to no avail. I think agencies go after the individuals with assets only. Thank you thank you for hopefully bring this to the attention of someone either government or public sector that can stop this. DHS never contacted a nursing home in Indiana County when she tried to get Mom "as far away as I can from her daughter". She was evil and vindictive when she chose a 1.5 CMS nursing home for my mom that could have lived with her daughter who loves her and just happens to be a Registered Nurse with 33 years experience. - by Norma Carpenter on August 4, 2013 - 11:56am
  • Amen, and I hope you can get somewhere with this horrible ordeal now! - by Dawn Hoyt Welch on August 4, 2013 - 12:38pm
  • thinking of you and your family, hoping you get what is best for your mother and family soon. - by Michelle Downey on August 4, 2013 - 12:57pm
  • To all my friends and family, please share this article. One day mom and I are sitting on the back porch talking the next day she is locked up in the hospital. This could happen to anyone. Mom had a will (Steve had it changed) but it did not help her. Please continue to pray for Mom. No more posts about this I am sure everyone wii be glad) - by Norma Carpenter on August 4, 2013 - 1:38pm
  • Rita Denmark was a divorcee in excellent physical health with mild/moderate dementia. Denmark domiciled and resided in Pennsylvania, she was registered and voted in Pennsylvania, she had a Pennsylvania prescription drug plan and a Pennsylvania Workers Compensation insurance policy for her personal care companions (all of which she had known for years). Denmark had her Advance Directives in place and she had a long term relationship with a favorite, local banker and an accounting advisor both of whom had assisted Denmark with her financial affairs for many, many years. Rita Denmark had everything was in place to enjoy her Golden Years with her family and friends when she took a "life changing" vacation to Florida with one of her daughters. Just DAYS after their Florida arrival a dispute between Denmark’s children ensued causing them to reach out for legal direction. Denmark’s daughter was assured that the quickest, easiest and least expensive way to get the problem resolved and to get their mother back to her home in Pennsylvania was to allow AND assist Professional Guardian, Jetta L. Getty (owner of Young at Heart Elderly Services) to sort out the disputed facts and report back to the court within 90 days as required. Jetta Getty promptly placed Denmark in a Port Orange, FL Assisted Living Facility (Summerville now called Emeritus of Port Orange) and Getty put Rita’s daughter, the vacationing companion, onto an airplane sending her back home to PA assuring her and other family members that Rita would be home soon. Rita's daughters now believe that Getty’s motive was to get that daughter out of her way & hoodwink other family members long enough to get the court behind her then, she began the process of enriching herself, converting Rita Denmark's approx. $470,000.00 estate into fees for herself, her attorney and other business associates, including another Professional Guardian, Edith Myett who has sense been arrested! In less than 5 years Getty has paid herself $93,932.75 [11/28/2007 - 08/03/2012]. That is almost $19,000 per year for …. The documentation in the Volusia County FL Court record shows very specifically that Jetta Getty CHANGED Rita Denmark's address. The Volusia County Court record also shows that several attorneys and the guardian, AKA "Officer's of the Court" knew, or should have known, that Denmark was a vulnerable senior and was a PA resident being moved by Getty. These Officer’s of the Court were ALL paid (by Getty) from Rita Denmark's approximate $470,000.00 estate. It took approx. 3 ½ years to finally obtain the documented proof that NOT ONE of those “Officer’s of the Court” ever told the Judge that Denmark was a Pennsylvania resident and domicile. This FL court record is chocked full of deceit and omissions by Getty through her attorney and others. We have reason to belief that Denmark’s entire estate has been plundered and converted into fees. We believe that Denmark is now supported by Floridians HARD EARNED tax dollars even though her family wants her home and to care for her. WHO guards the guardian? NO ONE! Thank you for taking the time to read this, “to the best of my knowledge and belief,” real life story. For more information or to inquire about supporting “public record” documentation, contact or - by Holly Peffer on August 4, 2013 - 2:41pm
  • this made me cry terribly norma. im so sorry. i love you. keep fighting for her norma. - by Annette Ferraro on August 4, 2013 - 6:04pm
  • After Moms hearing on the 19th of November 2012 @ the Indiana County Court House, Indiana PA, I contacted numerous agencies with not one response. I called the State Agency on Aging, PA Attorney Generals office, Department of Human Service, and PA Dept of Public Welfare. Someone called me back from Dept of Aging. It was a third party administrator who placated me and offered no suggestions, and someone from the Dept of Welfare left a message and never returned my message. I did not get one call regarding my complaint to the County Ombudsman. I wonder how much of our taxes go to support an agency that promises to protect our elderly with not a care. Our attorney at the time requested that Louetta Kutchman from DHS contact us that we may visit my Mom on Thanksgiving. A week or so later she informed our attorney following his call to her that she forgot about Thanksgiving. - by Norma Carpenter on August 4, 2013 - 9:10pm
  • Louetta finally approved that we see Mom the Sunday before Christmas. When we got there I was followed around by a RN who was told I was not to be out of their sight. I was informed that a horrible picture was painted about me. The RN was sorry that they had to follow me around. I assured the RN it was OK; I understood the directives. The conveyed without a doubt it was obvious how much we loved and cared for her. One of my numerous concerns was the fact that she was kissing and hugging a man at least 20 years her junior. I was told by the staff that she did this all the time. She got so upset when they tried to separate them that they just let her go. During our hour and 45 minute visit 3 residents fell. The place was filthy. My Mom was charged around 7500 per month for this facility. The staff told me that they were unaware of any visitors coming to see her since her admission. Again this POA wanted to make sure it was impossible for me to visit and in turn she has caused so much suffering to Mom; she gets paid $80 and hour to do this. How can anyone without a Masters Degree in Social Work or Psychology be able to capture this amount of money. From what I was able to garner about her experience and education she ha a high school diploma. That speaks to the lack of appreciation for professional onions and her willingness to not inquire beyond hearsay. Why is there not educational requirements for an individual that has so much power over her resources and care? I do not get it. - by Norma Carpenter on August 4, 2013 - 9:38pm
  • If my demise is due to an accident or poisoning perhaps it will be like the Silkwood story years ago. People getting rich do not like advocates that try to mess up their dynasty. - by Norma Carpenter on August 4, 2013 - 9:40pm
  • Norma, I am so sorry for what you and your Mom are going through. The corruption in the courts is beyond anything I have ever seen. They are all in on the scam to deplete the elderly of all of their resources and, for whatever sick reason, make certain that the elderly person and their family suffer. My Mom and I went through this nightmare at the hands of the court appointed guardian, Mary Giordano, an elder care attorney with Franchina and Giordano in Garden City, NY, who kidnapped my mother and imprisoned her in a nursing home against her will. SAVE Dorothy Wilson Legally Kidnapped. - by Diane Wilson on August 5, 2013 - 5:51am
  • So sorry to hear of these horrendous stories of abuse. My grandmother also was a prisoner to a guardian in this corrupt system. My heart goes out to all who have suffered and those fighting for them. My grandmother passed away in May. I plan to keep fighting. - by Tulani Ain on August 13, 2013 - 6:47pm
  • This is appalling! As I read the stories, it was heartbreaking for I too went through a similar thing where my mother was concerned. For me it was my brother causing all the problems and only thinking of himself. He stole money from my mother, wouldn't give her proper medical care even though I was a nurse at the time who was working Long Term Care. Even the facility my brother admitted our mother to was quite a distance for me but close for him. I had contacted Adult Protective Services twice to report abuse but they called my brother to make an appointment. WHAT? How was this agency to find any abuse when they made an appointment? My poor mother was so fearful of my brother that she was afraid to say anything. Had it not been that she needed 24 hr. care and I was able to speak not only to the Social Worker at the facility along with the House Doctor, my mother may never have known any peace before she passed. It is the only thing that has given me any peace over my mother's passing in that she was no longer being abused by my brother since her room was directly across from the Nurses Station and the doctor wrote an order that my brother could never take her out of the facility. Our country should be ashamed of how we treat our elderly, they deserve respect and to be given every chance to live with dignity. - by Valerie Banta on August 14, 2013 - 12:43pm
  • if an elserly person who is unable to live alone but has his son living w/ him & his son is over burdened & unable 2 provide the constant carethis man requires & expects 2 be given to him like being waited on hand & foot, all assets r in the sons name but the elserly manplays around with his meds & only takes what he wants 2 when he wants sneaks food/drink he isnt allowed 2 have & behind his sons back is therea way 2 get him under appropriate care he refuses 2 let his son & guilts him into keeping him home but the stress on his son isnt healthy & he really needs to be in a home where he can be watched & his diet/meds/activites r more controlled & monitored - by Nicole Farris on January 9, 2014 - 10:34pm