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Legal guardian denies Alzheimer's patient her home and family contact

CLEARWATER — Carol Kinnear, a retired Belleair Elementary teacher in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, signed an update to her trust in June 2008.

Her wish was clear: For the rest of her life, regardless of her health, she wanted to stay home.

She had lived there for more than 30 years, crossing the road to Clearwater Beach and reading Mary Higgins Clark mysteries on the wraparound porch. As long as she could afford the at-home care, she decided, she would stay and watch the sunset.

The trust provision, her daughters thought, would assure she could do that.

On Monday, Kinnear, 78, was taken from home and moved to an unnamed facility, the act of a court-appointed guardian. She would be treated there for "high anxiety and confusion," the guardian wrote in an e-mail. Her children, blocked from contact, were told it was in their mother's best interest.

Earlier this year, to safeguard their mother's estate after money had come up missing, they had filed for guardianship in a Pinellas court.

Now they find themselves the victims of unintended consequences, guarded against by the person they had sought for help.

"My mother has means. She doesn't need to be in a secret home," said daughter Kathy Howland, 50, of Largo. "She set this up long ago to make sure this wouldn't happen."

Local attorneys, however, say the guardian has done nothing wrong. When Kinnear was deemed "incapacitated" in April, court records show, her rights to decide medical treatment, residence and "social environment" were transferred to the guardian.

"The guardian's determination trumps whatever language was in a previous trust," said Richard L. Pearse Jr., a Clearwater guardianship lawyer. "The home environment is not always the best suited to provide a high level of care, even if the money is there."

Trusts cover the delegation of assets but not personal wellbeing, said Elizabeth Wall, a St. Petersburg attorney representing Kinnear's guardian, Teri St. Hilaire. The documents are too unrestricted and inflexible to establish sound health decisions.

"A guardian is obligated to attempt to comply with a person's wishes," Wall said. "But you can't anticipate the future. … If following their wishes puts them at risk, then you have to do something different."

Among some of the county's 3,000 open guardianships, Kinnear's situation is a common conflict. Irene Rausch, a former president of the Florida State Guardianship Association, said guardians and families often differ on what would be best for the ward.

"It's kind of difficult when a professional guardian is appointed because family members say, 'Who are you? I'm a family member. I'm entitled,' " Rausch said. "People are very fearful of guardianship. They try to avoid it."

Kinnear's daughters had thought it could help. A guardian would have the power to manage her health care and assets, including the beach home once appraised at $1.8 million.

Problems, they said, began soon after.

Kinnear's first guardian, Sandra Scott, caused her to fall after giving too high a dose of medication, said Kellee Watt, 45, of Indian Rocks Beach.

St. Hilaire, who replaced Scott on July 1, didn't return phone calls and e-mails from the daughters.

Requests for different aides after Kinnear complained of verbal abuse were ignored. The move on Monday was based on a doctor's recommendation, St. Hilaire wrote in her e-mail, but neither Kinnear's longtime physician nor her neurologist were consulted, Watt said.

Neither Scott nor St. Hilaire responded to messages this week from the St. Petersburg Times.

The statutes, Rausch said, don't clearly define how involved guardians must keep the family. Caseloads can include dozens of separate wards, making it tough for guardians to keep up.

The daughters have recourse to assess the guardian's methods — filing for a court monitor. But that means more paperwork, procedure and time while their mother waits away from home.

"What is concerning to me is the structure and lack of oversight for guardians," Watt said. "They're essentially without a boss."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Legal guardian denies Alzheimer's patient her home and family contact 08/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 10:52am]
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