Alameda County conservatorship drains estates of elderly it cares for, Grand Jury finds

Robert J Hansen

Family members claim abuse of loved ones by care facilities and courts under conservatorship

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Mildred Rodriguez in her niece’s, Cathy Rodriguez, vehicle on September 2, 2018.(Courtesy of Cathy Rodriguez)

Sacramento, Calif. — By Robert J Hansen

An Alameda County Civil Grand Jury investigation into conservatorship proceedings in Alameda county found that conservatorship is in likely need of reform, according to the Grand Jury’s 2021-2022 report.

Although the investigation found no evidence of criminal acts by court staff, it did find that involuntary conservatorships are often very expensive for conservatees, especially those who are removed from their homes and placed in care facilities.

These individuals, depending on the degree of impairment, may be placed in a conservatorship, a legal proceeding in which the court appoints a person or agency to take care of the individual’s needs and make decisions on their behalf.

Under the current system, conservatees’ estates can be quickly drained, despite court oversight, the report said.

These legal services are provided by the Alameda Public Defender and Legal Assistance for Seniors (LAS) and are the primary safeguard against a person being placed in a conservatorship that is unjustified or unnecessarily restrictive.

Legal Assistance for Seniors (LAS) clients are primarily elderly adults in general conservatorships, whereas 80 percent of the Public Defender’s clients are developmentally disabled adults in limited conservatorships.

In 2019, the Alameda County District Attorney investigated allegations that, among other things, probate court staff committed financial abuse and failed to protect conservatees’ assets.

Conservatees like Mildred Rodriguez.

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Mildred Rodriguez on March 18, 2019.(Courtesy of Cathy Rodriguez)

In 2017, Mildred Rodriguez was living in a mobile home that she and her niece, Cathy Rodriguez owned.

Then when a roommate died, Rose Rivera, Cathy’s third cousin, took Mildred against her will to live with her, according to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who for years worked for the Alameda County Probation Department, was told by another cousin that Rose Rivera took Mildred and tore the floors and bathroom out of the mobile home, making it inhabitable.

Video recordings show the mobile home was unlivable.

Rivera took over Power of Attorney over Mildred and tried to defraud her of all her property and assets according to Cathy Rodriguez.

“Rose destroyed the mobile home and the majority of my aunt's belongings were gone, a few things were left,” Rodriguez said.

Cathy and Rose battled through the courts for guardianship of Mildred and numerous attempted restraining orders, Court documents reveal.

Rivera attempted so many unsuccessful restraining orders that she was ruled a vexatious litigant by the Alameda Court, according to court records.

While Mildred was living with Rivera, a medical evaluation was done and it was determined that Mildred was not getting the care she needed and her environment was not good for her, according to documents provided by Rodriguez.

“I tried to get my aunt out of Rose's home through the cops but to no avail,” Rodriguez said. So, I filed the petition in probate Court in Berkeley California.

Rivera objected to Rodriguez’s petition for guardianship of Mildred from the encouragement of attorney Roger Spencer, according to Rodriguez.

Spencer, the court-appointed attorney for Mildred, stated that a neutral party is needed to act as conservator due to the family feud between Rodriguez and another family member, Rose Rivera.

He also objected to Rodriguez having guardianship of Mildred.

"Each time I have met with the conservatee, [Mildred] she has expressed distrust for Cathy Rodriguez. She is unwilling to have Cathy in control of her or her money or property in any way," Spencer said in July 2018.

Mildred Rodriguez recognizes she requires Conservatorship and wishes the Court to appoint the Alameda County Public Guardian as her Conservator of Person and estate Spencer told the court.

“She does not trust, and will never trust Cathy Rodriguez,” Spencer said.

However, the handwritten documents by Mildred contradict Spencer’s statements.

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One of several handwritten letters to the Alameda Court by Mildred Rodriguez asking to live with Cathy Rodriguez.(Courtesy of Cathy Rodriguez)

A November 2018 letter by Mildred tells the judge that she is not happy where she is and would rather live with Rodriguez.

“I hope there is something you can do and let me live with my niece Cathy Rodriguez,” Mildred wrote in March 2019.

The court placed Mildred in conservatorship under Alameda County Public Guardian in May 2018. While under conservatorship, she lived at a couple of different facilities according to the court documents.

First, she was at St. Regis Retirement Center before being moved to Jones Convalescent Hospital in August 2018, according to court documents.

Cathy would come to visit her aunt and once took her to the mobile home, unaware she was restricted from doing so.

The Public Guardian then filed a complaint claiming that Cathy’s behavior was disruptive to hospital staff and residents and was eventually prohibited from having any contact with her aunt.

“I was not informed that I was not allowed to take my auntie out,” Rodriguez said.

Jessica Chia, Deputy County Counsel for the Public Guardian’s office, requested that the court restrict Rodriguez from contacting or visiting her aunt.

Chia also claimed that Rodriguez’s complaints against the Public Guardian’s office were inaccurate.

“You raised several complaints against the Alameda County Public Guardian's office and the Office of the County Counsel based on untruthful and inaccurate allegations, and you continue to reiterate these allegations at public meetings, in broadly distributed email communications, and in court proceedings,” Chia said in a letter to Rodriguez.

Video recordings and written documents from Mildred reveal how she felt mistreated, neglected, and abused while under the protective guardianship of Alameda County.

“The system is abusing my auntie and keeping her in prison with no contact from the outside world,” Rodriguez said.

In a March 2018 letter, Mildred wrote that she doesn’t want to go with Rose anywhere.

“They (the nursing home) never tell me that she (Rose) is going to pick me up. Rose shows up and says you are going with me. I don’t like that,” Mildred wrote. “Rose yells at me and says I have to go with her. I cry sometimes because I don’t want to go. Judge, please help me.”

In March 2019, Rodriguez tried to petition the Alameda County Public Guardian for conservatorship of her aunt but was again denied.

“I want out of here. I want out of this place. I don’t like staying here and being with these people,” Mildred said in a video recording.

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Mildred Rodriguez telling her niece, Cathy Rodriguez, that she doesn’t want to live at the Jones Convalescent Hospital on December 22, 2018.(Courtesy of Cathy Rodriguez)

Mildred died under the care of Alameda County and Bay View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in November 2020.

“I knew that she would never be free because she was only going to be free once she left in a body bag,” Rodriguez said.

Rivera could not be reached for comment.

The Alameda County Public Guardian’s Office also could not be reached for comment.

The final account showed Mildred’s estate was valued at just over $14,000 yet owed the county over $83,000 according to final accounting records. Leaving a total balance owed at more than $73,000.

Hundreds of new petitions for conservatorships are filed in Alameda County each year according to the Grand Jury report.

The investigators from the Grand Jury’s report offered the following recommendation to reduce or eliminate such costs for conservatees.

“In situations where family members petitioned the court to be appointed conservator and the Court finds conservatorship is not appropriate and eventually dismisses such petitions, the proposed conservatee should not be held accountable to pay for the costs of the legal process initiated by another person,” investigators recommended.

The lack of a contract between Alameda County and its conservatorship defense providers that outlines the expected scope of representation means that not all proposed conservatees receive the same level of service and raises the risk of litigation against the county.

Involuntary conservatorship proceedings can quickly drain proposed conservatees’ estates, which would not occur under a recorder’s fee-or grant-funded model.

Rodriguez frequently attended Alameda County Board meetings in person and spoke during public comment regarding her concerns with her aunt's case.

After trying to fight for her aunt, Cathy Rodriguez claims she is now the target of retaliation from attorneys and the Alameda County Public Guardian’s Office.

There will be follow-up articles in the coming weeks on what Cathy Rodriguez has experienced after her aunt died.

This report relied on the 2021-2022 Alameda County Grand Jury Report. It also relied on hundreds of pages of court documents, numerous video recordings and several letters provided by Cathy Rodriguez.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA
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