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Families fighting state-run conservatorships are trapped in a broken, systemic web of conflicting interests

Want to fight a state-run conservatorship? You'll face the California Attorney General - and have nowhere to turn for help.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — The state of California will not let Deborah Findley see her son, Andrew, in person.

She has spent over $300,000 in legal fees fighting the state’s court-ordered conservatorship, trying to get access to him.

Credit: Deborah Findley

In December 2021, she was only allowed virtual visitation where she had to follow “guidelines.” Questions like ‘how he’s feeling’ are called “triggering,” and put her future visits in jeopardy.

“Over the past three years, I’ve only been allowed less than 100 hours of contact with him,” said Deborah.

So, to abide by the guidelines, instead of asking questions she shows him his favorite things like his Christmas presents underneath the tree since Andrew is not allowed to come home for the holiday.

“I’ve had that Christmas tree there for three years, waiting for him to come home,” said Deborah.

During the virtual visitation, Andrew, who is 21 years old, was hard to understand and lost focus often. Deborah said he is on many medications that she is opposed to – but because of the conservatorship, Deborah has no say over it.

“It just leaves me as a mom worried sick for my son,” said Deborah. “He used to be fully conversational…he is just a shell of a human being right now.”

This was not what Deborah was expecting when she sought conservatorship nearly four years ago.

RELATED: 'I want to live at home' | The battle of a conservatorship funded by tax dollars

“You’re told when your special needs child turns 18, you need to get a conservatorship,” said Deborah. “The regional centers kind of pound that into parents too.”

Experts ABC10 spoke with said there is a pipeline that leads to conservatorship – starting through school, doctors, and/or regional centers.

Andrew has autism as well as other developmental disabilities and requires 24-hour care, court records show.

“Had some challenges but we had the best therapists in northern California,” said Deborah. “The best of everything we provided for him.”

They thought they could continue his care with the conservatorship. They raised Andrew in northern California in Shingle Springs. As he approached age 18, their family moved to Templeton in central California.

After their move, Deborah and her husband petitioned for conservatorship. She says they were blindsided.

“It was pretty much a done deal before our attorney even walked in,” said Deborah. “And he was blindsided too.”

In reality, the court was in control. 

“We had no idea that something like this could happen,” said Deborah.

What the probate court received alongside the Findley’s petition for conservatorship was a competing one from California’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS) saying they should be conservator because Andrew’s parents were allegedly abusive.

DDS has continued to say throughout the conservatorship proceedings that, “throughout Andrew’s life his parents have interfered with his health, safety, welfare," and that they could not handle his growing aggression and were not providing proper care, court documents show.

Deborah said she was never asked about this.

“(The) court-appointed investigator never interviewed us. Still hasn’t in three years,” said Deborah. “We never got due process.”

Credit: Deborah Findley

The court listened to DDS, granting them temporary conservatorship in September 2019, after a fiduciary served as conservator for a period and a different Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) conservatorship also was instated for a year. The conservatorship stripped Andrew’s parents of their right to care for their son like they had for the first 18 years of his life.

“We became legal strangers to my son,” said Deborah. “He was treated like an orphan.”

Since the conservatorship process began, Deborah said for periods of time she has not been told where her son is.

“It was a lot of nights of crying myself to sleep going, ‘Where is my son? Is he alive? Is he dead? I don’t know. Nobody would tell us,’” said Deborah.

Seeing people like his mother may “cause regression,” DDS told the court and that the court should “not be swayed by impassioned pleas from family.”

“Nine months, I had no idea where he was. They wouldn’t let me know anything about him,” said Deborah. “It’s inhumane. It’s absolutely inhumane.”

With DDS being the conservator, information about her son is impossible for Deborah to get.

“The (regional center) staff and supervisors aren’t allowed to communicate with me. I have to go through the conservator,” said Deborah. “(For) anything with my son. I’m like, ‘Did he get my card?’ ‘Oh, you have to ask the conservator.’”

That means Deborah has to ask a massive multi-billion-dollar state agency if her son received his Christmas card.

Deborah says Andrew wants to come home, asking during every visit they have. DDS says the current situation is what is best for Andrew. Unlike in episode one of this investigation, some of the confidential court documents were not accessible for this complex case. But it provides a window into a broken system, keeping families apart - and we at ABC10 wondered how it is that DDS, a massive government agency, can serve as conservator of an individual with very specific needs.

WATCH EPISODE ONE NOW: The Price of Care: Taken by the State

“The law permits the Director of the Department of Developmental Services to be appointed as conservator,” said Tom Coleman, attorney, and founder of Spectrum Institute – a human rights non-profit organization.

He believes DDS being able to be a conservator is “ridiculous.”

“Someone who is running a billion-dollar department with hundreds, if not thousands of employees…that person is going to be a conservator of an individual and look after their needs and care for them? It is a farce,” said Coleman.

DDS often becomes a conservator by way of its regional centers. That is what happened in Andrew’s case; Tri-Counties Regional Center nominated DDS to be conservator, court records show.

“It totally is a conflict of interest,” said Deborah.

Deborah believes this is a conflict of interest because when a regional center nominates DDS as a conservator and it is granted, the responsibilities of the conservator are returned to the regional center, funded by DDS.

“DDS is the funding agent…they have full control of how that money is spent,” said Deborah.

What is also funded by DDS is the live-in care facilities where 86% of those conserved by DDS live, according to public records requests as of July 2022, like Andrew – as well as Garth, who we introduced in part one of our five-part investigation.

“Prisoners get calls. They get visitors,” Deborah said. “My child is not allowed any of that.”

These conservatee’s care homes, as well as caregiving expenses, are all paid for by taxpayers.

Yet, a June 2022 audit found these facilities are not being properly monitored by DDS or regional centers as state law requires, including medication not being properly distributed in some – a life-threatening issue.

This “care” is all part of the $12 billion budget DDS has, including the ongoing legal battles to keep conservatorships in place.

“The attorney general represents DDS,” said Deborah. “So, there’s the attorney general, DDS’ lawyers, there’s tri-counties regional center lawyers.”

One of those is Andrew’s own court-appointed attorney. The court approved over $13,300 in pay, funded by taxpayers for about 20 days of work. And he is just one of the many attorneys involved. Others came from the California Attorney General’s office.

“The assistant attorney general. Two of them,” Deborah recalled. “Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

As a state agency, in a court of law, the Department of Developmental Services is represented by California’s Attorney General.

“It was daunting to be in court with the Attorney General,” said Deborah.

In cases like Deborah’s, they represent DDS to defend the conservatorship. Coleman finds this hugely problematic.

“That is a problem, in my view – a big one, because the Attorney General of California is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the state, including civil rights laws,” said Coleman. “The Department of Justice has a civil rights protection division.”

“Protecting and promoting the civil rights of all people in California” is the division’s job, their website states.

“So, the Attorney General can intervene, file lawsuits, and investigate when the civil rights of people are being violated,” said Coleman. “What if the violator is a state official? Or a state entity, like the Department of Developmental Services. Then the Attorney General has a choice because you can’t do both, you can’t be a prosecutor and a defense attorney at the same time – it’s a conflict of interest.”

We reached out to the Attorney General’s office. They said they “do not engage in enforcement against our client state agencies,” one being the Department of Developmental Services.

“However, that does not preclude other entities from bringing civil rights claims where applicable,” their statement said.

One of those “other entities” is Disability Rights California, which under federal law is required to protect the rights of those with disabilities.

“But sadly, every time I’ve reached out to them I’ve just been told that they only will communicate with the client – and that my son has to call them and ask them for help,” said Deborah.

But people with disabilities often communicate in different ways as well as non-verbally. Making a call to express a complicated legal system could be a massive challenge and hurdle.

Disability Rights California has a branch called the Office of Clients Rights Advocacy (OCRA).

“This part of them, this agency, is supposed to protect the civil rights of regional center clients,” said Coleman.

But Coleman said OCRA isn’t helping those conserved.

“As soon as they hear there’s a conservatorship involved, they’re nowhere to be found,” said Coleman.

And guess who OCRA is funded by? The Department of Developmental Services.

“I’ve reviewed their funding. I’ve reviewed their contracts with DDS,” said Coleman. “They have the authority. They have the funding. They have the moral duty.”

So, we asked Disability Rights California’s OCRA Manager Shannon Cogan about this. She said with conservatorships, the organization mainly provides alternatives. Their policy is to not help anyone obtain a conservatorship.

“I think it’s really easy to criticize people who are doing hard work instead of collaborating with them,” said Cogan. “We don’t have a mandate to file lawsuits or administrative complaints about anything related to conservatorship – we do a lot of good work for people who might be impacted by conservatorship.”

“They nibble around the edges. They will do a little bit of this or do an educational forum. We don’t need education,” said Coleman. “You are a law firm. You are a civil rights enforcement legal entity.”

OCRA’s own website states they provide “legal advice and representation” to clients of regional centers – where conservatorships often begin.

But Cogan said OCRA doesn’t take on cases to fight conservatorship – it is “one of the other branches of the tree.”

For months, we asked OCRA for specifics on how many conservatorship cases this “other” Disability Rights branch represented – they never gave us that data.

As for getting involved after a conservatorship happens, Cogan validated Deborah’s experience: a client must give consent – so Andrew, rather than his mother, but a parent calling could spark action.

“Certainly if this was an issue of extreme rights deprivation, health or safety, we send our employees to that person to interact with them,” said Cogan.

Coleman and Deborah say it is not enough.

“I had so many people say, ‘I’ve gone to Disability Rights California. They won’t do anything,'” said Coleman.

Specifically for Deborah, it seems like a never-ending loop of conflict of interest: the regional center, funded by DDS, nominated DDS to be the conservator. When the conservatorship was enacted, the duties of the conservator went back to the regional center which then placed Andrew in a care facility, also funded by DDS. She then went to Disability Rights California to ask for help, an agency also funded by DDS.

Yet, Cogan said their funding would not stop Disability Rights California from representing someone conserved by DDS, like Andrew.

“Yes, we can. Absolutely,” said Cogan. “We have clients that are conserved by DDS…there’s no inherent conflict and we can do it.”

For over eight months, we asked DDS for an on-camera interview. They refused.

We also sent them a detailed three-paged, single-spaced letter outlining our investigation’s findings and asked 15 specific questions including about conflicts of interest. They sent us a written statement, included below. It did not answer any of our questions.

So, we took our questions about DDS’ budget to Amy Westling, the Executive Director of the Association of Regional Center Agencies (ARCA). This association represents all 21 of the state’s regional centers.

Westling knows DDS’ multi-billion-dollar budget in and out.

In addition to fully understanding the budget, we were curious if DDS has an incentive financially to conserve people. Westling doesn’t believe so.

“My experience with DDS is they are pretty conservative with which cases they become conservator for,” said Westling. “DDS doesn’t get additional funds for conserving people.”

But no matter which way you look at it, taxpayer dollars are funding DDS conserving people.

Credit: Deborah Findley

Parents like Deborah continue to lose hope.

“Every time I have a call or visit, I’m scared it’s the last one – that I won’t ever see my son again,” said Deborah. “It’s just not a way to live.”

Since our interview, Deborah’s virtual visitation has been “paused.”

Her long legal fight with the Department of Developmental Services will continue in October 2022 when the probate court will determine if DDS’ conservatorship becomes permanent.

Deborah has no idea if she’ll ever see her son again.

But the Department of Developmental Services is not just responsible for the 414 people they are conservator to; this agency’s main duty, by law, is to help ensure 400,000-plus Californians with disabilities have equal rights and opportunities.

Yet, there’s a concern – and evidence – that they are not doing their job. Even from California’s in-house watchdog, the California State Auditor.

That is next in episode 3 of The Price of Care: Taken by the State.

Catch up on episode one of season two's five-part investigative docuseries, The Price of Care

Department of Developmental Services statement to ABC10:

“In California, unlike any other state in the nation, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a right to the services and supports to help them live their most independent and productive life. With the passage of the ground-breaking Lanterman Act in 1969, the state affirmed its commitment to these rights for Californians. We at the California Department of Developmental Services have the responsibility to deliver on the assurances made by the law. 

It is our obligation to hold ourselves and our system partners accountable, while ensuring that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive community-based services and supports that embraces choice and allows them to live with purpose and dignity. We are constantly looking to improve how we serve the whole person, all while protecting the health and well-being of those we serve.

We are striving to create effective, culturally responsive, and efficient services. We have advanced this vision by the historic investments made over the last two years that, when put together, drive us toward a system of value-based services and supports, where our main objective is quality and better outcomes.”

Department of Developmental Services response to our questions:

“DDS does not actively seek conservatorships. In all instances, the Department of Developmental Services’(DDS) involvement in the conservatorship process begins with a submission by a third party requesting that the Director of DDS become conservator of a person with developmental disabilities. DDS only decides to petition to become conservator when clear and convincing evidence shows that a conservatorship is needed to protect the consumer’s health, safety, or well-being. The submission can come from a variety of sources, such as the courts, a regional center, a law enforcement agency, a family member, the county public guardian, the consumer’s court-appointed counsel, local adult protective services, or any other person interested in the consumer’s health, safety, or well-being. The conservatorship process is a court-based, legal process. As such, DDS has the legal burden to present conclusive evidence to a judge demonstrating that the conservatorship is necessary to protect the person’s health, safety or well-being.

Family members can and do participate in the judicial proceedings that decide whether a conservatorship petition should be granted, the scope of the conservatorship, and whether the Director of DDS should be appointed as conservator. Furthermore, a court-appointed counsel is part of this process. These are officers of the court appointed by a judge to represent the interests of the proposed conservatee. These counsels are completely independent of DDS and do not receive any funds from the Department. Court-appointed counsel have a fiduciary duty to act independently and in the best interest of the proposed conservatee to determine whether a conservatorship is necessary and who, if anyone, should serve as conservator. 

 DDS does not seek to become a person’s conservator without a third-party submission having first being made and thoroughly vetted. DDS conducts a comprehensive, detailed inquiry when it receives a conservatorship nomination. DDS will not seek to become conservator if there are alternate, less restrictive means to protect a consumer’s health, safety, or well-being. DDS also will not seek to become conservator if there is a family member, friend or other close person in the consumer’s life that can protect the consumer’s health, safety or well-being. DDS has a legal and moral obligation to protect the consumer no matter the desires or objections from family members.

It is important to understand that under state law every regional center consumer participates in the development of an Individual Program Plan (IPP) that identifies the supports and services the person needs. An IPP is developed regardless of the legal status of individuals. The amount of funds spent on a consumer is based on costs for the supports and services identified in the IPP, and not on any other factor such as whether a conservatorship is in place. Thus, absolutely no additional funds are spent simply because a consumer is subject to a conservatorship by DDS. In addition, neither DDS nor the regional center receives any additional administrative funding for individuals who are conserved versus those who are not conserved.”

Watch season one's five-part investigative docuseries, the Price of Care: Investigating California Conservatorships.


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