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February 21, 2019

Nevada Public Radio
Fred Wasser

For the last few years, the guardianship system in Clark County has been under scrutiny and in turmoil.

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For the last few years, the guardianship system in Clark County has been under scrutiny and in turmoil.

But now, one of the most notorious private guardians, April Parks, is behind bars. Parks could spend up to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to dozens of felony charges connected to her business that defrauded dozens of elderly and disabled people in the state.

After the Parks' story made headlines, the State Supreme Court created a commission to look at the system and recommend changes.

Jim Berchtold is an attorney with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and he was on the commission.

He said the commission issued several recommendations from changes to the laws governing guardianships to changes to the court rules for guardianships.

Berchtold said most of the changes have been implemented, including a protected person's bill of rights, which he believes is the most important change.

"There was this common thought that once you entered into guardianship you essentially lost your rights," he said, "The commission really wanted to turn that on its head and said 'no, you maintain your rights unless they are specifically given to somebody else you maintain your rights in guardianship. And so they passed this protected person's bill of rights, which I think has been a model across the country."

Berchtold said now when a court is deciding whether someone should be put under guardianship the protected person gets a lawyer who advocates for them. 

Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada established a guardianship advocacy program. Lawyers at the center go to court with the person in question to make sure their wishes are followed.

Berchtold said that in the past some people didn't even know they were being put under guardianship and didn't know there was a court proceeding to determine that.

One of the most heartbreaking examples of that was Rennie and Rudy North. The couple was removed from their home by April Parks and taken against their will to an assisted living home. 

Meanwhile, Parks and her team took an inventory of their home and belongings and sold as many of their valuables as they could.

After 22 months of fighting with the court system, the Norths were able to return to their home but most of their possessions and financial assets were gone.

Their daughter Julie Belshe is now a guardian reform advocate with the Kasem Cares Foundation. 

She said her family was traumatized by the events of six years ago and are just now picking up the pieces.

"Now, I can tell you six years later we are all starting to heal as a family including myself," she said, "These people never stop. They are corrupt and they hide behind the fact that everybody thinks they're legal. There is nothing legal about this."

One of the first media outlets to shed light the Norths' story was the Vegas Voice, a magazine for Southern Nevada's senior population.

Publisher and editor Dan Roberts said the guardianship story became a bit of an obsession for the magazine when they found out how many people were impacted by it.

"You cannot believe the illegality going on," he said, "It became something that either you walk away from it or you get involved. The more we got involved the dirtier things became."

Political reporter for Vegas Voice, Rana Goodman, first started working on the guardianship question after the death of a friend's mother. After her mother died, the woman's father was put into a guardianship without her knowledge and it was only by luck that she found out.

Goodman went to many of the court hearings for Parks. She said many victims gave victim impact statements and all of them were very moving.

While Goodman documented some of the outrageous abuses of the system, she is now hoping to see even more reforms to the system, including a bill that is before the Legislature right now that would create a supported decision role.

"The idea is if someone has early onset dementia or just slight dementia but they are still quite capable of taking care of themselves they would be able to name somebody they trust - be it a family member, friend, a sibling - to be there supported decision maker," she explained, "Then if they decide they want to do something costly like sell their home, move to another location, sell a car, buy a new car, they discuss it with their supported decision maker and together make a sound decision."

Another important change to the system is people can now file a paper with the court outlining who they want to be their guardian - if they happen to need one. 

Berchtold said filing that paperwork and other estate planning will help protect you in the future if you become unable to take care of yourself and your finances.

And while there are more reforms that need to be done, Berchtold thinks the safeguards in place now make it unlikely that a private or public guardian could get away with the crimes of the past. 

But he does say family guardians, which is when someone in the protected person's family is put in charge of them, don't get much oversight or training.

Despite the changes, Belshe doesn't believe enough has been done to protect people from being put under guardianship or isolated from family by a guardian.

"If you think this can't happen to you? It can happen to any of us," she said.