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Netflix Series Examines Financial Elder Abuse
Netflix’s investigative docuseries Dirty Money, which examines financial misdeeds, is back for a second season. And one of the show’s most shocking new episodes, “Guardians, Inc.,” tackles abuses in the world of elder guardianship, a system that controls the lives of an estimated 1.5 million adults with estates worth more than $250 billion—and that is rife with financial fraud and elder abuse.
When older or disabled adults are found to be unable to manage their affairs, the state may step in and and assign them a legal guardian to control their finances and medical decision making. It’s designed to protect the assets and well-being of those who’ve lost the ability to make sound decisions for themselves, but it gives those appointed guardians near-total control over those in their care, and can leave elderly people vulnerable to those who don’t have their best interest at heart.
As Dirty Money revealed, in states like Texas, guardians are entitled to earn commissions on sales of their wards’ assets, on top of drawing wages for themselves, assistants, and lawyers. Abuses have been reported for decades; in 2001, the New York Times wrote of one lawyer who served as guardian for senior citizens. He brought a birthday cake to one ward’s nursing home and charged her estate $850 for the visit. On another occasion, he took her to buy an ice cream cone and charged her $1,275.
Journalist Rachel Aviv, who’s featured in the Dirty Money episode, wrote an in-depth examination of guardianship abuse for the New Yorker in 2017. Her story focused on Rudy and Rennie North, a retired Nevada couple who were married for 57 years before professional guardian April Parks arrived at their home in 2013 and forced them to move to an assisted living center. Parks, who’d won control of hundreds of wards over the years, had, without the Norths’ knowledge, filed an emergency petition to become their guardian, convincing a judge with the help of a letter from a physician’s assistant who had a single appointment with Rennie that the couple could no longer responsibly handle their affairs.
After spending just 10 minutes before a judge, Parks became their permanent guardian. She sold off the their belongings and changed their insurance so that they were forced to see new doctors who prescribed them powerful tranquilizers and painkillers. But after the Norths’ daughter turned to local journalists, who invested abuses in the guardianship system, Parks’ guardianship of the couple fell under scrutiny and they were removed from her care.
In 2017, Parks, her husband, lawyer, and office manager were all indicted for charges that included perjury and theft. The legal proceedings revealed that Parks had worked with medical facilities and lawyers to scout potential clients, and had instructed doctors what to write in their notes to the court in order to ensure that she was awarded guardianship of their patients. Parks plead guilty, and was sentenced to serve 16 to 40 years in prison and pay more than $500,000 in restitution.
“She was not a guardian to me,” one of Parks’ former wards told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “She did not protect me. As each day passed, I felt like I was in a grave, buried alive.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.