by Amy Susan Crohn
“Amy, just five years ago she could have been saved.” These are the heartbreaking words I heard from my friend and adoptive mother, Margaret* who, since 2006, has been battling a crooked ex-New York State senator for her disabled daughter’s inheritance from her deceased father. These monies could and should have provided proper care and services for her conditions throughout her lifetime. Now, it seems it is too late. Her current treating doctor says Elizabeth Marie* is likely to die within a few years. She is only twenty-four years old.
Elizabeth is autistic and an international adoptee. The foremost expert in this specialty says Elizabeth’s brain age is actually about eight. Dr. Ronald S. Federici, Psy.D., Clinical Director and Supervisor at the Virginia-based Neuropsychological & Family Therapy Associates has seen far too many cases like Elizabeth’s. Regarded as the international expert in the neuropsychological evaluation and treatment of children having multi-sensory neurodevelopmental impairments, he is Elizabeth’s devoted advocate and abhors the dubious activities of those who deny these children and adults their rights.
What Went Wrong?
However, like a game of three-card Monte that relies on sleight of hand and deception, a certain aged-to-imperfection group of Westchester County, New York lawyers and their cohorts in and out of the judicial system prey on the elderly and the ill. They do so by cleverly cutting themselves in as executors, effectively cutting out legal heirs by assuming full control of all estate assets both big and small. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was not out of harm’s reach.
With high-functioning autism and mental illness, Elizabeth sat by her father Anthony’s* bedside for two weeks in October 2006 and watched him die from cancer and a stroke. Mere miles away a convicted felon and former New York State Senator** was watching the ink dry on documents that from that day forward put him in one corner of a proverbial boxing ring, the Westchester County Surrogates Court in the other, and a disabled Elizabeth square in the middle as the punching bag with no referee.
According to Grover C. Shaunty, MSW and founding director of The Mental Health Co-Op in Houston, Texas, he is well aware of this type of issue. “Out of our current 79 residents we have four who have been exploited by fiduciary agents supposedly acting on their behalf,” said Shaunty. “However, this does not include the five or six stories I hear each year from families of potential patients who cannot afford our facility due to assets being swindled. I have seen millions lost and not available for the disabled child.”
Shaunty has 53 years’ experience working with the mentally ill, including autistic children and adults with dual diagnoses. In the 1960s, he developed a model of cognitive therapy for the young adult mentally ill utilizing a combination of guided cognitive awareness, living in a relative stress free, open campus environment and access to ongoing supportive therapy. This has allowed thousands of his clients to return to as near normal social and work environments as their illnesses will permit.
With the ex-Senator, however, you find that the dish does indeed run away with the spoon. In fact, his conviction in 1984 was for exactly this type of crime – embezzling money from the estate of a client of his own law firm, among other crimes. His modus operandi is to effectively but of legal questionability name himself as executor and/or trustee of sizable estates that, for years, have been denied to their rightful owners. Morally, it is another question entirely.
Perhaps, the most incredulous of these examples is Elizabeth’s case. In 1995, the ex-Senator permeated the familial wall of Elizabeth’s father, a long-time New Rochelle, New York business and property owner who was dying of kidney cancer, naming himself as executor and trustee of his surviving heirs’ $2,500,000 estate. The ex-Senator’s “problem” however was that nearly every penny from Anthony’s assets in 1995 was assigned to his disabled teen-aged daughter, Elizabeth.
Sadly, the rapidly declining Anthony allowed this even though all prior wills, legally filed by a New Rochelle, New York law firm named his disabled child’s godparents and family friends. Enter the ex-Senator and two new wills were drafted in May and October of 2005 changing the executorship to the ex-Senator and trustee rights to an estranged nephew of Anthony’s, a state social worker. Infuriating to Elizabeth’s mother and those who are also fighting similar injustices, it is illegal for a convicted felon to have control of monies from anyone’s estate unless restrictions after conviction are removed. In the ex-Senator’s case, those restrictions were not lifted until 2008.
Even more remarkable in Elizabeth’s case, is that the ex-Senator was heralded for his early child advocacy work as head of the Temporary New York State Commission on Child Welfare created by former Governor Hugh Carey. In that role, he wrote, contributed and helped pass legislation that provided protections for children and the disabled, an irony that is not lost on the family he has defrauded.
During his 1984 trial, the ex-Senator’s own attorney held in his hands official reports from the Commission and asked the jury: “’Is this work for children the work of a man who has a mind full of fraud and a heart full of larceny?” The jury answered with a resounding “yes” and the ex-Senator was convicted. After appeal, he served time in an upstate New York prison, a Manhattan halfway house, and probation.
Today, Elizabeth has endured more than 50 hospitalizations since her father died, and her mother has been working three jobs to keep her precious daughter out of state institutions that have made her conditions worse, including electric shock therapy that caused brain damage. According to Dr. Federici far too many of these children end up in prison, state institutions, or dead when there could be monies available to treat and house them while helping them become effective contributors to society. Dr. Federici is the author of Help for the Hopeless Child: A Guide for Families and has appeared on numerous television news programs to shed light on this issue that continues to linger.
In repeated attempts to collect money due Elizabeth for proper schooling and medical care, the ex-Senator and his ‘shills’ simply hang up on Elizabeth’s mother or her own attorney when they telephone. They also provide no legally-required, yearly accounting of the monies due Elizabeth, and, in court documents, claim there is little or no money left violating entire sections of the New York State Bar Association’s Code of Conduct. Now facing what might be her final placement, Elizabeth may, once again, need to enter a state institution because the ex-Senator continues to refuse to release funds for her care.
Anthony was a well-known fixture in New Rochelle, N.Y. Arriving from Italy in 1950, he was trained as a hairdresser in New York City and opened his own, highly-successful shop. For forty years, Anthony worked tirelessly to support his family, including the daughter he adopted from Hungary with second wife Margaret. Although divorced in 1996, Anthony maintained close relationships with both Margaret and Elizabeth until his death. His daughter was the ‘apple of his eye’ and, regardless of her illness, he made sure to provide for her in his will for her lifetime, including a permanent residence in an apartment building he owned and the $150,000 in rents collected from that building annually. Alarmingly, the ex-Senator sold the building shortly after Anthony’s death, even padlocking Elizabeth’s apartment so she could not gain access before the sale.
Elizabeth is a precious young lady with high-functioning Autism and several mental health diagnoses. Until high school, she was diagnosed with many learning and social anxiety disorders but never Autism. In fact, her family and the medical professionals with whom they consulted, never really knew what was amiss despite repeated attempts to gain diagnoses until visiting Dr. Federici who also specializes in internationally adopted and post-institutionalized children. During her school years, she loved riding horses, performed as a violinist and vocalist, and was chosen twice by the New York State School Musicians Association (NYSSMA) to represent her school district. With long brown hair, wide brown eyes and an infectious smile, Elizabeth is friendly to all and quite intelligent; the demons that she wrestles with are all directed within.
Once Elizabeth was forced to enter State mental institutions after her father’s death and the ex-Senator’s outright refusal to release her rightful inheritance, she received medications and electric shock treatments that permanently altered her brain. This is the highest insult that one can add to an already injured girl.
To those who knew him, the ex-Senatorwas quite the charmer. He was a very affable man. He had a certain charisma thatnever failed to engage many of those who met him, up close and personal. It was almost as though he was a “man of the cloth”— a religious figure. He was passionate, warm, and seemingly had a heart of gold. Those who believed in him were in awe of his presence and his demeanor. To Anthony, he must have appeared to be just such a man rather than a wolf in sheep’sclothing. But if you watch the street card player’s hands carefully, there is enough – of course – to give the man credit for his good works, but equally as much, if not more, to be disgusted by his infractions.
* * *
As for Elizabeth, her medical and psychiatric hospitalization throughout summer and fall of 2011 placed her mother in an unthinkable position yet again. Elizabeth, now 24, is no longer a child. And while in a 2008 court decision, Margaret was awarded guardianship, her trustee remained a law guardian appointed when she was a minor and the co-executors of Anthony’s will remain the ex-Senator and his aide-de-camp who participates in legal proceedings and signs his name on legal documents because, legally, the ex-Senator cannot.
Today, as Margaret explained to me, she has three options: 1) Have Elizabeth return to her one bedroom apartment and keep watch over her 24 hours a day, seven days a week while Margaret works and with the help of a hired aide; 2) Inform the next hospital where Elizabeth lands that she will not accept her back and the hospital will find placement in a State institution; 3) Obtain Elizabeth’s rightful monies in full and place her in a permanent, group home-type facility where she will thrive and, perhaps, return to making music, working, and enjoying horseback riding.
For me, as a friend, foster/adoptive mother and a writer, the timeline of the ex-Senator’s unscrupulous law practices is most shocking when you compare it to the timeline of Elizabeth’s attempts for proper schooling and medical care. Since her father’s death, Elizabeth has been cast about in a cruel limbo, both legal and medical. ‘No justice’ is a cry heard most often in criminal court. To find that justice is equally, if not harder, to obtain in surrogates court, a court that is supposed to protect is shameful.
To Anthony the most serious of crimes has been committed in that his intentions for his daughter were ignored and he will never rest in peace.
UPDATE MARCH 2012: Elizabeth is doing well after three months in a private facility out-of-state. Although she has been hospitalized a number of times in that community, she continues to return to the facility and is improving with a clinical support system, daily treatment plans, and learning the skills necessary for, perhaps, independent living in the future. Each month, her mother must request the monthly facility fees from the ex-Senator who has ultimate control over whether or not he will release funds for her care and/or when he will inform her that the money is gone.
Due to this six-year battle, Elizabeth’s mother, Margaret, is in the process of establishing a not-for-profit agency that will help ensure that disabled heirs received their rightful inheritances for lifelong care. It is her hope that other families of the disabled who have suffered similar injustices will contact her to make effective change in this area. For information and to contact her, go to www.projectgravesilence.org.
*Name changed for privacy.
**Name changed due to ongoing media investigation.