By Susan Redden
Guy Sesler, of Joplin, said staff members of the Jasper County public administrator’s office rarely checked on him and stalled his attempts to be released as a ward.
Jean Blackwood, mother of Gareth Blackwood, of Joplin, said court action on July 12, 2006, that made her son a county ward came with no attempt to contact the family.
And Sue Holle and Billie French said the public administrator’s office moved Rebecca Clark, their developmentally disabled relative, four times in a 16-month period. She finally ended up in a nursing home in St. Louis, but it was difficult and costly for family members to visit her, they said. She died there in February. After she died, Holle said Public Administrator Rita Hunter told her Clark was no longer her responsibility.
“She said she wouldn’t claim the body, and I shouldn’t either, because whoever does will have to pay the bill,” Holle said.
Hunter has responded in writing to these complaints and others from wards and relatives, based on written questions from the Globe that were directed through the office of John Podleski, attorney for the public administrator’s office.
The treatment of a 95-year-old woman and the arrest of her daughter on a kidnapping charge are the subjects of lawsuits against Rita Hunter, her attorney and an area physician. After Delores Forste was arrested for “kidnapping” her mother, Emma France, in 2007, some wards and family members of wards began contacting the Globe with complaints about the office.
In addition to the family members of Sesler, relatives of Gareth Blackwood and Rebecca Clark contacted the Globe with their information. The cases of Oscar Close and George Collins, which appear later in this story, were based on letters of complaint found in probate files.
‘She worked really hard’
Globe attempts to follow up on allegations in the France lawsuit prompted complaints from Hunter, who said the coverage was unfair and that no attempts were made to question people pleased with services of the office. Attempts to reach Hunter prior to the stories met with mixed results. She did not respond on several occasions and more recently has referred questions to her attorney in Springfield, who declined comment.
At the Globe’s request, Hunter, last week, supplied names of several who praised services of her office.
A woman whose finances are handled by Hunter’s office also contacted the Globe to praise the county operation, which she described as “a lot more organized and modernized” under Hunter.
Pam Hankins, of Joplin, called the Globe and cited Hunter’s efforts on behalf of her clients, saying the administrator’s office worked hard to find new lodging for Jasper County wards after the fire three years ago at a group home in Anderson. Twelve wards of the office were living at the home when the fire occurred.
“She worked really hard relocating people after the fire,” Hankins said. “And when the state cut Medicaid benefits, she went to Jefferson City and testified against it.”
Sandy Higgins, of Carthage, whose name was provided to the Globe by Hunter, said the public administrator and her office have been “a lifesaver” in the care received by her grandson, Andrew Tisdale.
She said the office checks often on her grandson, who is in an assisted-living arrangement in Joplin.
“Rita has been so gentle with him, and with me, and so concerned about his care. He knows he can call them at any time — and does,” she said. “It’s been a blessing for the family.”
Betty Nichols, of Carthage, praised Hunter’s work as guardian of her son, Jeff Nichols, who is now a patient at a home at Salisbury. Nichols’ name was also provided to the Globe by Hunter.
“Rita tried her best to find him the kind of place he wanted,” she said. “She’s taken good care of him, and she’s been very good to him, and to me.”
Judy Grimes, of Carthage, said she was her son’s guardian for five years before petitioning the court and asking Hunter to take over.
“She knew where to put him so he could get help; I didn’t have that knowledge,” she said. “Now, he’s where he needs to be.”
She said the family was allowed to keep her son’s belongings when his apartment was cleaned out, and said her son told her that Hunter had visited him and brought him clothes.
“She took over about six weeks ago,” she said. “I’ve been really pleased.”
Hunter also provided the Globe with the name of Grimes, as well as those of Larry Hickey, a former Joplin resident, and Barbara Nelson and Dawn Royer, both who live out of the area.
‘People thought he worked there’
Sesler and his wife, Sabra, say they almost lost their home because the taxes were not paid and the administrator’s office did not notify them until two weeks before the purchaser, who bought the house in a tax sale, would have taken possession.
Sesler, 66, was released as a ward of the administrator after a petition filed June 24. He became a ward in 2002 after he went into a coma following a heart attack. Sesler said he has recovered, and has been well enough to care for himself “for a long time” though he does not remember how long he has been asking the public administrator’s office for permission to go home.
But he said the public administrator’s office denied his requests, even after he had statements from doctors saying he should be released. The first, he said, was contained in a statement by a doctor after an examination on May 8 and the second with another doctor on May 13.
“I told them I could go home, and they told me the doctor would have to agree,” Sesler said. “So I got a doctor’s statement and sent it to them. I kept calling, but they never called me back.”
Sesler spent five years in an assisted-living apartment at Spring River Christian Village for five years and for the last year, had similar quarters at Autumn Place in Joplin. At Spring River, he said meals and medications were supplied. At Autumn Place, he said he has been in charge of his own medications and has used a tiny kitchen area in his room to prepare his own meals and extra dishes, like batches of Mexican salsa.
“The other people thought he worked there,” said Sabra Sesler, his wife.
The Seslers said their family home at 2431 S. Pearl Ave. was saved in August 2006 with less than two weeks to spare after it had been sold at a tax sale a year earlier.
Sabra Sesler said she received a letter signed by Hunter and mailed Aug. 2, 2006, saying she had until Aug. 15, 2006, to pay the back taxes and keep the property. Sesler said she paid a tax bill totaling $1,948, using money borrowed from her mother.
Hunter said she contacted the family the same day she received the notice of the tax sale, which occurred in 2005 with the purchase to take effect a year later.
“I acted as quickly as I could, talking with his children and his wife about the urgency of the matter so they would not lose their home,” Hunter wrote.
She said her office did not pay the taxes on the house because when Sesler’s case was handed over to her from the previous administrator, it showed he had half-interest in the property, but did not show any taxes being paid from the estate. She said her office also never received any notices of delinquent-tax statements.
“I know the kids called her, because she charged me $15 each time,” Sesler said.
Sabra Sesler said she questions Hunter’s contention that she acted quickly, saying the potential buyer mailed a letter to Hunter’s office in mid-June, about six weeks before she was notified. Annual financial settlements that Hunter’s office filed with the probate court noted the property, valuing Sesler’s half-interest at $32,500. In the report filed Nov. 8, 2006, the value was cited as a loss, reading “lost real estate property in tax sale.”
In the time he has been Hunter’s ward, Sesler said he has never seen her or talked with her. Hunter said her chief deputy, Charlene Kelley, was Sesler’s case manager. She said Kelley visited with him “on many occasions, and I talked with him directly on the telephone many times.”
Sesler said he did get a visit once, before he moved to Autumn Place, from workers in the office. He said he never had a phone conversation with Hunter.
‘I don’t know who’s to blame’
Jean Blackwood, mother of Gareth Blackwood, said a petition to make her son a county ward listed her name and “address unknown.”
The language mirrors, to some degree, that used when Emma France was made a county ward. Delores Forste said no attempt was made to notify her of the hearing that made her mother a county ward. Hunter has said she and others familiar with the case believed the mother and daughter to be “estranged.”
Though Blackwood was in Canada at the time, she said she was in close contact with the Ozark Center, where her son was a patient. Medical records were sought from Ozark Center before the court hearing, according to the public administrator’s expense accounting.
“Even if Gareth was confused, I had always stayed in touch with Ozark Center,” the mother said. “No one ever tried to reach me.”
Gareth Blackwood, who was 30 at the time, was living in a rental house in Joplin. Two months after being made a ward, he was moved to a group home. He was moved four other times before the year was out, and was admitted to Fulton State Hospital in May 2007 where he remains.
Hunter said the petition asking that she be named Blackwood’s guardian was filed by an attorney for Freeman Health System, and she was not aware of it until her office received a copy from probate court.
“I am not aware of Freeman Hospital’s legal counsel’s procedures in notifying family members of their filing of the petition,” she wrote.
“I don’t know who’s to blame, but I do know that the family was supposed to be notified,” said Blackwood.
Dwight Douglas, attorney for Freeman Health Systems, said his office tried to get an address for the mother, so family members could be notified by the probate court.
He said they were unable to get one from the patient, and unsuccessful in an Internet search. He said they could not get that type of information from Ozark Center. Even though the two operations are related, they are “totally separate” for medical reporting purposes.
He said there would have been nothing to preclude a family member from petitioning to become guardian, once they learned of the appointment. That usually requires hiring an attorney, he said, adding “but when they contact our office in cases like this, we’ll help them.”
Douglas said the situation rarely occurs in Newton County.
“We have a very good public administrator who tries to work with the family. It may be a question of case volume; they are much busier in Jasper County,” he said. “But I have no complaints with Jasper County; they appear to do appropriate work for the ward.”
Carrie Close, of Joplin, said her father, Oscar Close, was not getting the care his doctor ordered at the Joplin nursing home where he was a patient at the time. But she said Hunter’s office did not check on him, and the office did not make sure her father was receiving money for incidentals until she called the state’s elder-abuse hot line. Information on whether the call was made could not be ascertained. Nancy Gonder, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said information on hot-line investigations is confidential.
Close was at a Joplin nursing home, then was moved to Booneville and most recently, to Bellview, near St. Louis. She said her father says he is receiving better care in St. Louis, but she said she can’t afford to go there to see him.
“Rita told me if I didn’t quit harassing her office, she’d take me off the visitors’ list at the nursing home, so I couldn’t go see him,” she said.
Close said she allowed the public administrator to be appointed at the suggestion of a hospital social worker, because her three children were very young when her father became ill.
Close said the average person does not know what is involved with a guardianship, and potential wards and family members should be fully informed “of the rights they’re giving up.”
“I have to have someone else’s permission to see my own father; they don’t call me when he goes to the hospital,” she said. “She (Hunter) makes all his decisions for him, and as far as I know, she’s never seen him, face to face.”
Hunter said Close was moved “because he had been discharged from the facility for behavior issues.”
She said his daughter was asked about the move and did not object to him being sent back to a home where he had been earlier.
“Our office never told Ms. Close that she would be taken off a visitor list if she did not stop complaining,” Hunter wrote. “She was never taken off a visitor list.
“When he first came to us, his personal spending ($30 monthly) was not being generated by our auto check system. I corrected the issue and am not aware of any problem since.
“I personally have visited with Mr. Close and have talked with him on the phone. I have sent deputy Peggy Firebaugh and a private nurse to see about his care.”
Letter to attorney general
The family of George Collins has hired a lawyer in an attempt to have him moved to St. Louis, closer to relatives, and to have someone else named as his guardian because the members felt Hunter was not responsive to his needs.
Collins’ file contains a copy of a letter he wrote to the Missouri attorney general’s office in March, questioning actions by Hunter’s office. He wrote that he was made a county ward in April 2005, removed from his home in Joplin and placed in the Anderson Guest House. Now a patient at Webb City Health and Rehabilitation Center, Collins writes that he has asked for information about his home, asked for items such as bedroom slippers and pajamas, and has made numerous attempts to contact Hunter “to no avail.”
Hunter said she was unaware of Collins’ concerns until the probate court sent her a copy of the letter he sent to the state. She said his house has not been sold, and she has retained some pictures and furniture. After the letter, she said she immediately contacted the administrator at Collins’ nursing home, and bought clothing and shoes, and took them to him. She said she also sent Collins a $50 check last December, but he never cashed it.
Sue Holle and Billie French said Rebecca Clark, their developmentally disabled relative, was moved four times in a 16-month period. The moves often took place after complaints by Clark, or by the two women, about the care she was receiving. One move took place, Holle said, right after Clark called a state hot line to complain about her care.
“She (Rebecca) could be rude and demanding, but all she really wanted was for someone to listen to her side of the story,” Holle said. “I asked Rita to meet with Rebecca; I drove Rebecca to Carthage myself. Rita wasn’t there, but someone else talked to her.”
In the last two years of her life, Holle said Clark was in nursing homes in Nevada, Carthage, Sedalia, Joplin, Salisbury in north central Missouri and St. Louis.
Hunter said Clark was moved frequently because of “inappropriate behavior,” and that the problem had been acknowledged by family members.
After she died, Holle said Hunter told her Clark was no longer her responsibility.
“She said she wouldn’t claim the body, and I shouldn’t either, because whoever does will have to pay the bill,” Holle said.
She said family members paid for Clark’s cremation and drove to St. Louis to bring back her ashes, which were buried near the grave of her grandmother.
“When Rebecca died, the facility called my office and we notified Ms. Holle that the facility wanted to release the body to her,” Hunter responded. “But because Rebecca was indigent, no funeral home would come and pick up her body. I advised the crematory that Jasper County would pay the indigent rate, and they refused to accept this rate.”
She said the nursing home then directly contacted Holle and asked her to agree to the release, leaving her with the responsibility of paying. She said Holle told her she could not afford the fee, so she advised her not to take responsibility. She said Clark’s father then stepped in and paid the expenses.
“Ms. Holle also stated that she was not unhappy with my services, that she was just unhappy with the circumstances that none of us were able to change,” Hunter wrote.
Holle said Hunter called her and questioned her about her comments, and asked her why she did not mention what she liked about the office. Holle said she did appreciate being able to take Clark from local nursing homes, when she was in Joplin, for holidays and weekends. But she and French said the “whole family is very upset” that Clark was moved so often, and so far away.
“She died up there all alone. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that,” Holle said.
By Susan Redden