Guardians Control Care Decisions, But Authority Is Not Absolute

A Texas probate judge appointed Frederick and Lorraine Cooper (see note below) as guardian of their adult developmentally disabled daughter Cathy in 2003. Three years later, Cathy moved into a group home in Grapevine, Texas. After Cathy had lived there for about two years, the group home operator became concerned about what it saw as her deteriorating mental health.

Why was the group home operator concerned? There were several reasons. Cathy had developed a set of imaginary friends, and the group home staff thought she was spending more and more of her time in conversation with them. She had become occasionally violent — once striking another resident who she thought was sitting in her seat on the group home’s bus. She had started to set traps for the staff, like lining marbles up under the edge of the door to her bedroom. She also was found to have as many as four screwdrivers hidden around her room — wedged into a closet, stashed behind her dresser and in her jewelry box.

The group home took the issue up with Cathy’s guardians — her parents. The parents did not feel that Cathy’s behavior was troubling, and they refused to permit the group home to set up a psychiatric evaluation. After the group home arranged a prescription for Zoloft for Cathy, the parents ordered that the medication be discontinued. They also continued to bring in over-the-counter medications for Cathy, insisting that her only medical problem was persistent headaches which could be treated without a doctor’s involvement.

In a meeting with Cathy’s parents, the group home insisted that they should not discontinue medication, that they could not bring non-prescription medications to Cathy without notifying the nurse on duty (and getting her approval), and that they needed to stop supplying their daughter with screwdrivers. Cathy’s parents pointed out that they were their daughter’s guardian, and that they were in charge of medical and personal decisions for her. They refused consent for a psychiatric evaluation, declined to cooperate with the group home over the over-the-counter treatments, and indicated that they saw no problem with Cathy’s attachment to screwdrivers and booby traps. They insisted that she just felt like she needed to have the screwdrivers to protect herself, and that if the staff would stop bothering her she wouldn’t feel like she needed to booby-trap the doorway to her room.

The group home arranged to get information about Cathy’s parents’ decisions before the probate judge who had appointed them as guardians. Without notice to them or a hearing on the information, the judge removed them as guardians and appointed a professional guardian in their stead. The Coopers did not appeal or seek review of that decision, but they did file a motion for reinstatement as guardians. After a hearing, the probate judge declined to reappoint them, and they appealed to the Texas Court of Appeals.

The appellate court agreed with the probate judge that the Coopers had failed to show that they should be reappointed as guardian for their daughter. The Court of Appeals noted that the Coopers not only did not express concern over their daughter’s behaviors, they assisted her by letting her take screwdrivers back to the group home after visits to their home. Although the Coopers had sought out evaluations by an allergist, an acupuncturist, a neurologist and a chiropractor, they had refused to have her tested or treated by a psychiatrist — because, they said, they were sure that the result would be that she was put on medication, and they wanted her headaches treated first. For all those reasons, the appellate court let stand the probate judge’s refusal to reinstate the Coopers as guardian. In re Covington, February 9, 2012.

The Coopers apparently felt that, as their daughter’s guardian, they were completely in control of medical and personal decisions for her. They were right, as far as that goes. But that control was not absolute. The ultimate authority in such a circumstance rests not with the family or guardian, but with the probate court overseeing the guardianship proceeding. The result of the court proceedings would likely have been the same under Arizona law in similar facts.

A word about names: For 19 years now, we have reported on cases with full and accurate names included. We have felt that having names humanizes the stories we relate, and those names are readily available in the reported cases in any event. But we are rethinking our position as the internet makes it easier and easier to look up personal information about anyone. A simple internet search for the name of an adult incapacitated person, or a family member of such a person, can expose their personal affairs to heightened scrutiny. Since we agree that the names are not really important to the story, we are trying an experiment with this week’s newsletter. We have changed the names of the principals, primarily to keep the actual names from appearing after an internet search for someone who, like “Cathy” here, is to some extent a victim of the public reporting system inherent in court cases.

If it is important for any of our readers to know “Cathy’s” real name, it is not that difficult to find it — in the same place we originally found it. From time to time, though, we will expect to modify the names of the subjects of legal proceedings and their families.

In the past we have also used full and formal names for the subjects of our reporting; we would have called Cathy Cooper “Ms. Cooper.” Since we are not actually using her real name here, we have decided to make her story more readable by referring to her as simply “Cathy.” We hope you understand; feel free to tell us whether you agree or disagree with either part of our decision.

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