Topic: First Chapter
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The mounting problem with guardianship and conservatorship is not new for those who have been victimized, yet it is only recently, with the media's attention on the Terri Schiavo case in 2005 that this financial and emotional abuse of our most vulnerable citizens has gained nationwide attention. Articles have been written in publications such as AARP magazine's "Stolen Lives" and published on Internet web sites "Justice For Florida Seniors", which is designed to "prevent guardianship abuse through education and action". A four part series in the Los Angeles Times became the impetus for California Assembly Bill 1363; Omnibus Conservatorship and Guardianship Reform Act of 2006. A March 22, 2006 episode of the television show Boston Legal featured a segment where a court appointed guardian was stealing from his ward. When the judge continued the case, the guardian told the attorney he would find his own attorney who would charge him $500 an hour and the money would come from the estate of the ward. This part is not fiction. (Hiring two thugs to beat up the guardian to force him to sign the release of his guardianship however was fiction) There are hundreds of horror stories of seniors who have been victimized from Florida to New York to California, but there are no happy endings. Until now.
Magazine articles, media coverage and even new legislation are totally ineffective when the controlling forces of attorneys and judges dictate an individual's rights to their own liberty and property. In many cases the laws are as blind to the due process clause of the 14th amendment as the Statue of Justice is to the plight of the victims and their families. It takes extraordinary efforts of everyday heroes to help Lady Justice see, take notice and act.
My mother always proclaimed the warning not to give your child the name of a bird because she'll spread her wings and fly away. What she should have said was not to name your child after an action hero, because she will have a life long propensity towards fighting for truth and justice. Notwithstanding the more derogatory inferences to "round Robin" and "Rockin' Robin", such is my curse having been named Robin. As a result, my aspirations were much more of the heroic breed of Robin Hood and Batman's partner.
My history of fighting injustices took me into the political arena in Glendale, California when the city's redevelopment agency was forcing small business owners from their property through the power of Eminent Domain. In1988, I began a redistricting petition so that every resident, rich and poor, would have equal representation on the City Council.
This compulsion led me to run for Thousand Oaks Board of Education to oppose a religious group's attempt to circulate abstinence materials in our public schools, which forced the school board to remove the brochures from the schools. When I reviewed my daughter's history textbooks, I worked with the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to remove the anti-Semitic texts from the High School. With no committee or any funds, I single handily defeated an overblown $110 million dollar school bond initiative. Twice.
I accomplished these heroic feats while raising three daughters, running a retail store with my husband William, and publishing two novels under my pen name Raven West.
A mid-life crises soon after my 50th birthday led me to enroll in Southern California Institute of Law, where I hoped to find a way to continue my education in an area that I felt would afford me the opportunity to continue my pursuit of justice in a more lucrative career. (Super heroes rarely received compensation for their endeavors). Yet, with all my experience fighting against the injustices of society, I was unaware of the true evil that was brewing within my very own family. An evil so insidious that it eventually cost my parents their home, their life savings, and nearly their lives.
They say truth is stranger than fiction. As a writer of fiction, I can verify the truth of that platitude, because in my wildest imagination I could not have possibly created the story that became my own reality horror show. The list of villains and their accomplices rivals any comicbook character's nemesis. The battle was waged in a court of law and won by a daughter whose love for her father was stronger than steel. The is the true story of my incredible fight to rescue my father from the clutches of financial vampires comprising of my cousins, Attorneys Howard Raab, G. Mark Shalloway, and the guardian Lee Eakin and Neil Newstein of the Ferd & Gladys Alpert Jewish Family & Children's Services of West Palm Beach, Florida.
Our family owes a huge debt of gratitude to Elder Law Attorney Sheri L. Hazeline , an intelligent young woman who went up against a powerful law firm and beat them at their own game. If not for her advice and support, I am certain my father would be living in a Medicaid facility in Florida and all of our family's assets would have transferred into the bank accounts of Shalloway & Shalloway and the trust fund of Jewish Family Services.
"Blood Tastes Lousy With Scotch" is not only an interesting and informative account of how our family was able to defeat the Florida guardianship system, but will serve to help other families who feel helpless against a heartless probate court system. This book will alert our baby-boomer generation to the early signs of financial abuse and undue influence by relatives and caregivers and offer ways to protect their loved ones from the predators who use the legal process for their own gains. It is my hope that our story will offer help and support to those who have been victimized, so that no other family has to suffer the lose of their elderly parents and all they've worked their entire lives to accumulate to some nameless, heartless agency and their attorneys. My ultimate goal in writing this book is to expose the insidious web of legalized theft perpetuated by judges, attorneys and the national tragedy of a corrupt guardianship system. It this tragedy can happen to someone as well known and loved as Ruby Cohen of Cohen's Bakery in Ellenville New York, it can happen to anyone.
The work of an action hero is never finished until evil is exposed and eradicated once and for all.
My father, Ruby Cohen, owned and operated Cohen's Quality Bakery in Ellenville New York his entire adult life. During the 50's and 60's, the Catskills were the summer vacation destination for many Jewish families and no visit to Ellenville was complete without a stop in Cohen's Bakery, home of the "World Famous Raisin Pumpernickel". Everyone knew Ruby Cohen. He was as famous as any actor or politician and was regarded with respect and admiration by everyone who met him.[i]
Dad was a charter member of Ellenville Elk's lodge 1971, founding president of the Ellenville Lions Club, among many charitable organizations. In 1997 he was honored as "Citizen of the Year." He was a wonderful father, husband, and a loving and kind grandfather to my three daughters: Tandy, Kimberly and Michelle. Ruby was a man anyone would have been proud to call their father, so much so that when my cousin's father passed away in 1968, "uncle" Ruby assumed the role of surrogate father.
Their relationship became a constant tug-of-war that raged on throughout my adulthood, and increased once my two cousins Beverly and Diane moved to Los Angeles in 1984. Even though I knew we would never be the perfect extended family, never in my wildest imagination did I suspect they would conspire with other cousins to steal my father's entire life savings and try to permanently separate him from my mother.
They say that blood is thicker than water, but you can't bath in it, wash clothes in it or water your lawn with it and blood tastes lousy with scotch.
I was working as an assistant editor at Healthy Living Magazine in Southern California in the spring of 2002 when I received a phone call from my mother informing me that my father had suffered a minor stroke while working at the bakery. I asked her if she needed me to go to New York, but she told me she was handling things and that dad was fine. The stroke did little damage to his ability to function physically, but his memory and mental faculties were severely impaired, although at the time, none of us knew the extent of the injury or what his demented state would eventually cost our family.
The stroke forced dad to sell our family business. After over eighty years "Cohen's Bakery" would no longer be owned by a Cohen. I flew to New York in May of 2003 to attend the New York State Elks convention with my dad. I could immediately see the effects the stroke had on his ability to function in a normal fashion and although mom was trying to maintain a positive attitude, I could tell dad's deteriorating health was taking a toll on her as well. Mom told me she had received phone calls from the local police telling her that dad had been found wandering through town and she needed to pick him up. Believing he still owned the bakery, he would stop in and occupy his former office chair, and the police needed to be called to drive him home. On more than one occasion, dad stole the car keys and drove off, not telling anyone where he was going and usually ending up at the American Legion bar. I was amazed that my 79 year old mother was holding up as well as she appeared to be. Having volunteered for years with the Ellenville First Aid and Rescue Squad, she had knowledge of basic first aid and knew every emergency personal at the local hospital by name. Mom's ability to take care of my dad in his condition was truly amazing.
In November, my three daughters and I flew to New York to celebrate Thanksgiving with my parents. Dad was his usual jovial self, but complained that he felt like a prisoner because his doctor told him he shouldn't drive or drink alcohol and my mother was doing her best to ensure he followed his doctor's orders. In spite of what his doctor had told him, dad insisted on having a few shots of scotch and eating the pumpkin pie dessert. After dinner he became dizzy and passed out in the bathroom. He was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure and blood sugar levels. The doctors were able to stabilize his vitals so that we were able to take him home that night. Dad insisted he had the flu, and he'd soon be back to "normal" and would be out to California to attend Michelle's high school graduation in June. My mother said there was no way he would be able to make the trip in his condition, although we all hoped she was wrong.
When I phoned my mother a few weeks later, she told me of her concern that dad was receiving a number of phone calls from my cousin Gail Lerner who lived in Florida. Gail was never very close to our family and there had always been animosity between her and my mother for reasons neither of us knew or understood. Mom tried to tell Gail that dad wasn't strong enough to travel alone. He was having problems with his memory, sometimes forgetting to take his medication and worse, forgetting where the bathroom was when he needed to use it, but Gail only argued with her, causing their animosity to escalate. Mom's warnings began to re-ignite the friction between her and Gail. Their conversations became increasingly hostile, upsetting my mother, so she stopped talking to her.
On a chilly end-of-winter day in March 2004 I received a frantic phone call from my mother that dad had packed a suitcase and told her he was going to Florida. Normally this was not an unusual occurrence. Dad would often vacation for a few weeks in warmer climate with his family while mom would stay home with her friends and social engagements. But unlike previous vacations, dad's health was a major issue. Mom was very concerned about his plans to have someone drive him to the airport in Newburgh, and his ability to change planes in Atlanta and arrive safely in Fort Lauderdale. I spoke to dad about our concerns and maybe it was a daughter's unrealistic denial of reality that I believed him when he told me he was fine and "not to worry."
I asked him if he was staying with Gail, but he didn't confirm or deny where he was staying in Florida, only that he was only going for a few weeks, until the weather warmed up back home, and he'd be back in New York in time for the 2004 New York State Elks convention in May, that I had planned on attending with him.
In spite of my mother's best effort s to talk sense into my father, dad phoned a friend to drive him to the airport and headed out the door. Although mom desperately didn't want him to leave, there wasn't anything a ninety-five pound, seventy-nine-year-old woman could physically do to stop him. We could not have possibly imagined that this one "small step" dad took that day would alter the course of the lives of my family forever, plunging all of us into a two year long nightmare.
A few days after dad arrived in Florida, I called Gail to see how things were going, and to talk to dad. Gail told me he was out to lunch with friends and would call me when he returned. Three days later, I called again. Gail told me that dad was resting, but he'd call me as soon as he was awake. I never received a phone call, but with a three hour time difference between California and New York I didn't think there was anything that unusual at first about my not being able to call at a convenient time. I began to be concerned when my daughter Tandy called from Oklahoma and told me that she had also been unable to speak to her grandfather, and Tulsa was only a one-hour time difference. She told me whenever she called Gail, she was told dad was always either sleeping or out with friends and messages for him to return her calls went unanswered.
March 19, 2004, nine days after dad left New York I received an email from Gail[ii]. Suddenly, this was no longer a two-week vacation. I had no idea who Henry and Sheri Solomon were, or what a Geriatric Care Manager was, or why my father would be looking for an "apartment" in Florida when, as far as I knew, he was planning on returning to Ellenville.
I emailed a reply and tried to phone her, but the phone went directly to her voice mail. I left several messages trying to get in touch with my father and get some clarification as to what was going on, but never received a reply. Meanwhile, my mother was alone in New York, unable to eat, losing weight and literally worried sick about where her husband was.
I kept trying to call, but no one would answer until about a week later when, by some miracle, my father answered the phone. I asked him about the email and the apartment and asked him what his plans were. His voice was so cold and distant. "I'm leaving New York, and never going back."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This didn't sound like my dad. I felt the muscles in my stomach tighten, the first subconscious warning sighs of the dangers to come.
"What are you talking about? Did you tell mom?"
"I haven't talked to your mother. She hasn't called me since I got here. All she cares about is the money. Don't call me anymore."
The phone went dead.
I immediately hit the speed redial button, but no one answered. The next call was to my mother, who was crying so hysterically she could barely speak.
"The bank just called. Your father tried to cash a check for $50,000.00."
"You're kidding!" I replied. "Do you have that much in your checking account?"
"Of course not. He knows that. The amount was crossed out and the correction wasn't initialed, and I don't think the handwriting on the date is his [iii]. Your father needs to come home, he doesn't know what he's doing."
I should have left my job, quit law school and been on the next plane to Florida, but since I'd already made plans to go to New York in May, I didn't believe there was any reason to leave early. Mom told me she closed out all of their joint accounts, putting everything in her name to protect herself from future surprises, and she sounded as if she were handling the situation quite well. We both expected dad would be coming back to Ellenville, but found out that my cousin had other plans.
A few days later my mother faxed me a copy of one of my father's IRA accounts, notifying us that the beneficiaries had been changed from my three daughters, to my four cousins; Beverly Cohen Scotti, Diane Cohen, Roberta Grundt and Gail Lerner [iv]. It was obvious in spite of my cousin's claims not to have known what Gail was doing, there wasn't anyway for her to fill in their exact month, day and year of their birth unless she had contacted them for the information. According to our financial advisor, this change should have never taken place without my mother's signature, which obviously, she never would have given had she known what Gail was doing.
I was furious. I knew my father would never take money from his only grandchildren, especially with Michelle, the youngest, graduating high school that year. Over the years dad had made many investments for his granddaughter's education. Even though they never asked or expected financial support, their relationship was tantamount throughout their lives. Both my parents attended all the special occasions in my daughter's lives, from the day they were born, each of their Bat Mitzvahs, Tandy and Kimberly's high school graduation and our yearly visits to New York were the highlight of my father's life. I knew there was no way he would have cut them out of any financial support and definitely would not have given it to his adult nieces. Someone was manipulating him, and I knew exactly who that was. Unfortunately, I had no idea at the time what lengths Gail was willing to go to keep my father from his family, until I received another frantic phone call from my mother.
Mom received a notice that her power of attorney was revoked. It was signed by my father and witnessed by my cousin and someone by the name of Frank, whom I later learned was Gail's boyfriend[v]. The form was dated April 14, 2004. In just over one month, Gail had managed to find an attorney and gain control over my father and his entire estate. The paper listed dad's new address. I looked the address up on the Internet and found the location was Newport Place retirement home in Boynton Beach. I immediately phoned the facility, asked to speak to Ruby Cohen and was told by the receptionist that Mr. Cohen was not to receive any phone calls by order of his power of attorney. I told the woman I was his daughter and I wanted to speak to my father, but she refused to connect my call.
I called mom and tried to reassure her that I would take care of everything, but at that time it was an empty promise. I had absolutely no idea how or what I could do from 3000 miles away with Gail now holding my father's power of attorney and her having full access to influence him to agree to do anything she told him. What was so heartbreaking to our family was that my daughters, who had always been so close to their grandfather, had lost all communication with him and I was helpless to do anything to rectify the situation.
Hoping to find some help, I phoned my cousin Beverly, who lived a few miles from me. She was very cold, saying she didn't want to get involved since it didn't have anything to do with her. I then tried to contact my cousins Bob and Norman Feldner from my father's late sister Jean, but they refused to listen to my cries for help. It became obvious that everyone of my father's family was siding with Gail for reasons I could not understand. In the past, I would always invite my cousins to our family's events, but they would only attend when my father was visiting. In June of 2000 I held a graduation party at my home for my daughter Tandy. Beverly and Diane took the opportunity to present dad with a father's day present, right in front of my guests, which led to many uncomfortable questions. Whenever my parents would come to California, my cousins would invite my father to visit them in Palm Springs, party on their yacht, attend their children's weddings, and many other charity events. My mother and I were never included in their invitation. When Beverly was married, I suggested she ask dad to walk her down the aisle. She thought it was a wonderful idea and he agreed. Neither my mother nor myself were invited. Beverly said it was a "small family wedding", so, I wasn't that surprised when Beverly responded the way she had, but I never expected that all of my cousins would conspire to such incredible lengths to try to take my father away from my mother and me, and worse, his grandchildren. But they never expected the lengths I would go to in order to prevent them from succeeding.
The gauntlet had been thrown, the battle had begun and it was going to be a long and bloody war before it was over. With no siblings, no other family members on my side, my mother in New York, my father in Florida, I was facing my very own Bermuda Triangle. And I was facing it "relatively" alone.
[i] Cohen's Bakery and Ruby Cohen
[ii] Email from Gail
[iii] $50,000.000 check
[iv] Notice of change in beneficiaries from America Funds
[v] Revocation of mom's power of attorney