Mary Artino, M.S.W., FCSW, Says Los Angeles County Probate Judges Are Failing to Protect Dependent Adults


Mary Artino, M.S.W., FCSW, on Los Angeles County Superior Court probate judges who fail to protect dependent adults

[Please note: The following conservatorship and social worker Mary Artino’s account of it are completely true. However, the actual names of the conservatee and her family members have been changed to protect their privacy. In addition, the actual names of the judge and court-appointed attorney in this case have not been disclosed due to fear that they will try to retaliate, as former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert M. Letteau actually did in the Conservatorship of Feist case.]

I am writing to request an independent investigation of the probate courts in Los Angeles County.

I am involved in a very complex conservatorship of Rene Leon, an individual with a dual diagnosis, a history of being a victim of domestic violence and trauma. Several professionals have come together to try to come to the aid of this woman. I was the LPS conservator of her mother, Ms. Betty Pitt Richmond, until her death three years ago. The case is complex because of the history of multi-generational substance abuse and domestic violence. It is one of the most tragic stories I have heard and is in the process of impacting a fourth generation. The family is one of prominence; they have significant wealth and, as such, have been the victims of multiple individuals extorting money.

Our problem today is that we our dealing with a judicial system in a probate court that appears to be prejudiced against elder law attorney Marc Hankin, who is fighting to protect our conservatee. I have been present when the judge refused to hear Mr. Hankin present his case. I have witnessed the conservatee’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas Norton, saying things to Rene and the conservator’s attorney (Mr. Hankin) that flatly contradicted what Mr. Norton said to the court. I later learned that Mr. Norton denied the entire conversation.

Mr. Hankin requested the issuance of an order to show cause (OSC) regarding contempt to Mr. Norton for lying to the court and making threats that he would sue the conservator, if she obeyed several court orders to obtain independent medical examinations. Despite the supporting declaration of retired Los Angeles Police Department Captain Glenn Ackerman (who heard Mr. Norton say the same things I heard him say, which contradicted what Mr. Norton said in court), the judge said he believed Mr. Norton, and he refused to issue the OSC re: contempt or to hear any evidence about Mr. Norton’s lying to the court and his subversion of court orders directing the conservator to obtain psychiatric evaluations of the conservatee.

Mr. Hankin told the judge that Mr. Norton was refusing to answer any of our questions about why Mr. Norton was seeking to remove the conservatee’s funds from the Pitt Family Trust and to place them instead in a seven-year irrevocable trust, which would be administered by a local fiduciary. In my experience, probate judges take a hands-on approach guiding their court-appointed attorneys and instructing them to attempt to collaborate with the family’s attorneys. But in this case, the judge seems to be inclined to allow just the opposite. Mr. Norton can do as he wishes, and the court is treating this case like any business litigation matter, instead of focusing on Rene’s needs and the need for the sharing of information and collaboration.

When Mr. Hankin informed the judge that Rene’s sisters were coming to court (from Spain and the East Coast) for an April 30 hearing, Mr. Hankin requested that the court set an afternoon hearing (after the “cattle-call” morning probate calendar). Mr. Hankin made that request so that the sisters would have the opportunity to address the court and so that the court would have more background information and would be better equipped to guide Mr. Norton in the performance of his duties. However, the judge refused to say whether he would allow Rene’s sisters to address the court at all on April 30.

The temporary conservator has moved mountains attempting to reconstruct Rene’s medical, psychiatric, and polysubstance abuse history. The temporary conservator has attempted to find police records of the various incidents of domestic violence that Ms. Leon was the victim of, and the temporary conservator and her attorney, Marc Hankin, have had to endure an onslaught of barriers judiciously placed by Mr. Norton and the probate court.

The family is distraught and worried that Mr. Hankin is being singled out for his previous efforts to secure justice in a court that is selectively hearing, or avoiding, his cases.

Tremendous efforts were made to find the experts who have studied the specific types of deficits that can arise from the abuse histories Ms. Leon has experienced. Rene’s sister, Darlene Powell Bingham, has gone to enormous expense to try to secure her sister’s safety and future, but none of it may get heard!

[Written by Mary Artino, M.S.W., FCSW, who is a foster care social worker and dedicated advocate of vulnerable seniors and dependent adults]

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