LAS CRUCES — Dorris Hamilton, a 91-year-old retired middle school principal, had started to notice some odd things happening in her life: She had stopped receiving mail at her home of 50 years off Las Cruces’ busy Main Street.

She was locked out of all four of her bank accounts.

Then, one morning in late August 2019, someone knocked on her door and presented her with a document issued by a judge, authorizing her “transport” to a nursing home.

In disbelief, Hamilton got into her gold Nissan Altima and drove to the 3rd Judicial District Court to find the judge who had ordered this.

Sgt. Robert McCord of the Las Cruces Police Department found her in front of Courtroom 1. She had her papers in the pocket of her vest.

She was being stripped of her rights, she told McCord.

“I’m a citizen. I pay my bills,” she said on body-camera footage of the encounter.

“Dorris, I do understand what you’re saying,” McCord said. “But I do know that a judge has put these people in charge.”

“Why?” Hamilton replied. “I haven’t talked to the judge. How can anybody be in charge of my business?”

McCord couldn’t muster an answer, and he had orders. He gently loaded her into the passenger seat of his squad car, as she argued her case, and drove her to a hospital. The next day, she was moved to the Village at Northrise, where she’s been since.

Hamilton had fallen into a system known as adult guardianship, intended to protect vulnerable elders who are no longer able to make their own decisions. A court-appointed guardian has the power to make decisions for them. In reality, the system can strip away a person’s entire independence and funnel their savings to lawyers and guardians while leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

Removing someone’s autonomy and giving someone else almost complete power over them, is a messy and dangerous proposition.

Overtaxed and opaque

Guardianship is the most restrictive protection for elders — from themselves, from family members, from friends — and can be necessary or even lifesaving in some cases. Yet previous reporting has documented a pattern of abuse across the country, and problems with guardianship are notoriously difficult to track. Nationally, 1.5 million elders are under guardianship, according to a widely cited report from a Florida court auditor, and the guardians caring for these elders hold $273 billion in assets.

Along with other popular retirement states, New Mexico has experienced and exposed some of the most prominent cases of abuse. Employees of two local guardianship firms, Ayudando Guardians and Desert State Life Management, embezzled a combined $15 million from their clients, and the CEOs of the companies were sentenced to prison.

In 2016, an Albuquerque Journal investigation exposed how an overtaxed and opaque legal system with large numbers of vulnerable elders makes it possible for an unethical guardian to operate with relative impunity.

Pamela Teaster of the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology is one of the few academics researching guardianship.

“When I started putting newspaper articles together, I began to see these pockets of corruption that pop up across the country,” Teaster said.

In 2018, prompted by the Journal investigation, state lawmakers passed a slate of reforms to guardianship. These new laws required guardians to be certified and to provide accurate and timely information on care, stopped guardians from limiting family visits and opened the court hearings to the public.

Those reform efforts continue. House Bill 234, recently introduced in the New Mexico Legislature, would require state oversight to certify and monitor guardians.

But these laws do little to address how and why guardianships begin in the first place. Guardianship begins in court, an arena that reforms have left virtually untouched.

In 2018, the New Mexico court system rejected recommendations to hire new auditors and other positions to oversee guardianship cases, instead turning to the State Auditor’s Office for oversight. But that office cannot audit a case unless a district judge makes a referral.

In Hamilton’s case, Chief Judge Manuel Arrieta has not done this.

New Mexico’s courts also rejected a set of model laws focused on shifting guardianship’s legal approach to protecting elders’ rights and minimizing intervention.

One of these laws would have limited the ability of an attorney to argue in the elder’s “best interest,” and instead require attorneys to prioritize the elder’s wishes and previous planning.

Rick Black, founder of a nonprofit dedicated to guardianship reform, believes guardianship problems persist because of the lack of reform in courtrooms.

“You have to address what happens that allows an elder to be inappropriately, involuntarily and unwarrantably placed into a guardianship in the first place,” Black said.

That’s exactly what Hamilton wanted to understand when she arrived at the courthouse on that hot August day.

A woman of firsts

When she was taken to the hospital, her only son, Rio Hamilton, a successful interior designer, was living in New York City. Her old Nissan was towed and sold. So was a mobile home and most of the possessions in her house.

Since the early 1970s, Dorris Hamilton had lived in the same modest ranch home, with a manicured lawn and a grill in the backyard. She moved there after separating from her husband and in doing so became one of the first Black women in the country to obtain a mortgage. Rio Hamilton remembers people coming from all around New Mexico to congratulate her.

Dorris Hamilton was a woman of firsts. She was the first Black principal in New Mexico and the first Black woman to graduate from University of Arkansas’ main campus.

For birthdays and holidays, she and her son would drive back to Arkansas, a long ride filled with lectures on geography and landmarks they passed.

“I always thought that Dorris Hamilton was the smartest woman in the world because she knew everything,” Rio Hamilton said. “And she did.”

He also remembers her as the strictest mom on the block.

After he turned 15, his mother bought him a red MG Midget, a two-seater sports car, and made only one request: No speeding. Within weeks, though, he got a ticket. Two weeks later, he got another. He knew his mother had seen it in the mail, but she didn’t say anything.

Then he walked outside one morning and the car was gone. Thinking it was stolen, he called his mom to tell her what happened. “I sold it,” he remembers her saying, and there was no arguing.

But by the time his mother reached her 80s, Rio Hamilton noticed her meticulousness starting to fray.

The Christmas decorations stopped coming down and the house began to pile up with old mail and boxes.

Even as her hoarding got worse, she explained it away.

She told her son that stepping over and around the piles was good for her flexibility. She said she wouldn’t buy a new car because what 91-year-old woman would drive to a seedy liquor store — the luckiest lottery-ticket spot in Las Cruces — in a brand-new Mercedes-Benz?

“To have her explain it to you at that time,” Rio Hamilton said, “it actually kind of made sense.”

Still, she knew she wasn’t as capable as she once was. She decided to give her son power of attorney, allowing him to make some decisions on her behalf. On July 20, 2019, they went together to see a lawyer to help draft the document.

That lawyer, CaraLyn Banks, is one of just a few lawyers who practice guardianship law in Las Cruces. She has practiced law for nearly three decades and has no record of disciplinary action with the New Mexico Bar Association.

They didn’t finish the process in that first meeting, but Rio Hamilton remembers that as they left the office, Banks mentioned knowing someone who could help clean out his mother’s house. Banks said she didn’t say anything about Dorris Hamilton’s home, but that she spoke to Rio Hamilton about guardianship for his mother on the phone after the meeting.

Just a few days later, Rio Hamilton was traveling for work when he got a series of emails from Banks.

After the meeting, Banks had filed an emergency petition for Dorris Hamilton’s guardianship, recommending that Advocate Services of Las Cruces become Dorris Hamilton’s guardian as soon as possible. She had filed it in Rio Hamilton’s name: He was listed as the petitioner, and Banks identified herself as the attorney to petitioner and Advocate Services as the recommended guardian.

The petition was approved in four days, without a court hearing. One month later, Dorris Hamilton met McCord in the courthouse and was whisked away.

A quick trip

Banks’ and Rio Hamilton’s accounts differ as to how that happened: Banks said Hamilton was aware that the power of attorney was not sufficient. She said she called him and left a message, although she did not call his mother to inform her.

Rio Hamilton said he had no idea about the petition, and still believed Banks was helping him clean his mother’s home.

What’s clear, though, is that just a few days passed between the Hamiltons’ meeting with Banks and the emergency petition for guardianship.

Given guardianship’s restrictive nature and the difficulty of reversing it, the process is supposed to be deliberate and rare. The petition for guardianship itself even requires the petitioner to affirm that every other option besides guardianship has been explored.

“We have every responsibility as a society to try to help people stay as autonomous as they possibly can,” said Teaster, the Virginia Tech professor. “And when we have to shave some of that off, in the name of safety, we had better make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons, and only as much as we have to.”

There is no easy way to find out who has a guardian, who that guardian is or for what reasons. Only elders and their families have access to their guardianship information. When Searchlight New Mexico petitioned for access to the court records of Dorris Hamilton’s case, Banks filed a response opposing the petition. A hearing for Searchlight’s motion was never scheduled.

Still, Searchlight talked to five families in guardianship battles with both Banks and Advocate Services, and it analyzed 20 cases involving Banks and Advocate Services, most now accessible because the elder under guardianship has died.

The stories the families shared bear striking similarities to the Hamiltons’ and one previously documented by the Albuquerque Journal: They involve a child or relative who is living out of state, an elder living alone, an emergency petition and a lengthy series of court hearings where Banks represents the elder against their children or relative, arguing the elder should remain in the care of Advocate Services.

Advocate Services and Banks both get paid through the elder’s estate. With each hearing comes the possibility of more attorney fees and costs to the elder’s estate and to their family.

Many of the court battles become messy. Advocate Services’ lead guardian, Sandy Meyer, has filed several restraining orders against families.

In 2019, Meyer accidentally sent an email to Rio Hamilton’s lawyer that was intended for Banks. “Do we have to get a restraining order against this guy,” she wrote. “He reports he comes twice a year and knew the condition of the house etc. what do we have to do to stop him in his tracks?”

After multiple requests for comment, Meyer wrote in an email, “Contested guardianships do not make us more money. It can cost us more unpaid-time.” Recently, she filed a request with the court to be allowed to step down as Dorris Hamilton’s guardian if the judge approves a substitute.

The 2018 reforms prevent guardians from barring families from seeing an elder, including through a restraining order. They also require guardians to be certified, which Advocate Services was not when it was appointed Dorris Hamilton’s guardian in 2019. The agency became certified in late 2020.

In one case, Banks filed an order to void an adult child’s power of attorney so that Advocate Services could become his parents’ guardian. The son in that case, Jack Alvarez, is a 70-year-old retired military contractor from Hatch who had helped his parents plan their will. Then Banks filed an emergency petition.

“My parents are just a case, and that’s more money into their business,” Alvarez said.

Banks argued she is not separating elders from their relatives; she said she is protecting them.

A say in the plan

Nearly every morning since August 2019, Dorris Hamilton wakes up in the memory care unit of the Village at Northrise. Across town, Rio Hamilton awakes in his childhood home. He moved back in the fall of 2019 and repaired the house, so that if Advocate Services is ever removed as his mother’s guardian, he’ll be ready to take care of her.

Every second Sunday of the month, he joins a Zoom call of New Mexico families with loved ones in adult guardianship cases. The consensus in the group is that though laws changed for the better in 2018, bad practices haven’t.

In spite of the trip to the courtroom that ended Dorris Hamilton’s independence, she didn’t get to speak in court for six months.

Guardianship is difficult to contest because elders often can’t speak for themselves in court, and even if they do, their words don’t carry any legal weight. To be put under guardianship, an elder must first be deemed legally incapacitated. And once deemed legally incapacitated, they can’t argue on their own behalf.

This circular logic makes it difficult for elders to argue for their rights to be restored or for changes to their guardianship. Attorneys also say it means Banks doesn’t have to argue for what Dorris Hamilton wants and can instead argue for what Banks determines is best.

Dorris Hamilton told the judge she wanted to be a part of the decision-making about the last years of her life.

“I’m perfectly capable of doing this myself along with my son,” she said.

As for guardians, she said: “These other people don’t know me, or what I have, or what I’m going to do, or what my plans are, or any of those things for the future. So why should they be stuck in [the plan]?”

“Because the court has plans for you,” Judge Arrieta responded, and the hearing moved on.

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

(21) comments

Richard Reinders

Scam from the word go, it is part of the agenda to divide and conquer like they are doing it with the culture trying to separate the Indigenous from their cousins the Hispanics . A strong cultural trait in New Mexico is taking care of family and now this will be eliminated and large corporations will build warehouses for the elderly. If your taking care of your parents put the bank accounts, assets and the real-estate in the kids names with an attorney , and I will guarantee no one will bother your parents because there is no financial incentive. It's all about the money.

Derek Gzaskow

Wow, just watched "I care a lot with Rosamund Pike" and didn't know this was a real thing.

Lemmie guess Chief Judge Manuel Arrieta was contacted but declined to comment. Hopefully her son's lawyer will win before the bills are so expensive he has to sell her house just to pay them . Lets get Larry Barker on this!

Lorraine Mendiola

SB234 will provide much needed oversight and accountability over guardians and conservators; however, it's been my experience that a major problem exists within the courtroom. Despite SB19 and SB395 which are now statutes, there are some District Judges who are not following these state statutes. Who oversees these District Judges? Well, what about The Supreme Court Justices and The AOC(Administrative Office of the Courts)?

It has also been my experience that District Judges do not listen to family members who come prepared with documentation to report concerns that may or may not be reported in the guardian's annual report. Instead, District Judges ignore the family member's concerns and if necessary to silence the determined family member place a "gag order" or some other sanction. This is NOT justice! The public must be aware that this human trafficking can happen to anyone! AG Balderas, do you consider Guardianship a form of Human Trafficking?

ron deener

The NM 'Supreme court' is the most corrupt I have heard of in the current situation we are in. Rubber stamp Grisham without blinking. The federal Supreme Court is just as bad but I hear if Chief Roberts could be removed, the problem might be solved. And there are those going after him. My husband has three lawsuits against Grisham in the works all going past the NM courts to the district court. I know that's not much better but he might have one judge capable of doing his job. I'm sending him this article now.

JOHN ZUBCHENOK

I have been following my neighbor's experience with a guardianship issue for her mother. This has been going on for some time and the level of exploitation is unreal. Each update has been more and more horrific with her mother recently being placed in a nursing home. The family has been forced to incur legal fees to try and prevent the abuse. The judge who was appointed has been reckless with lives and this woman's estate. He ignored the family's plan and has an agenda with Legends. I would say it is one of the most cruel and exploitive situation of a fellow citizen I have ever heard of.

As an aging citizen in this state it is definitely giving me reason to pause. I believe that our state is 45 worst in the country for elder rights.

JOHN ZUBCHENOK

The name of the company was Decades and not Legends.

Marcia Southwick

They did the exact same thing to a friend of mine in Santa Fe. He lost his rights to freedom. He was "sentenced" without his knowledge in a secretive court proceeding. Decades charged his estate liberally (understatement) against his will for thousands of dollars of "services" he didn't want or need. He needed Decades and their team like a hole in the head. He was drugged-- pinned to the wall, as his bank accounts were accessed. (That is my own personal opinion of what this situation looked like from the outside, and I believe that anyone witnessing his plight would see it the same way.)- He died after two years of confinement in his home. All visits by his loved ones were monitored by staff taking notes. This monitoring, of course, was paid for by my friend without his consent. A camera watched any visitors, and very few visitors were allowed. My friend soon lost weight and became a hollowed out, emptied shadow of his former self. He had been a prominent banker who was now not allowed to look at his own bank accounts. The whole situation was as sickening and heartbreaking as it gets. He complained whenever I saw him. No one deserves such pain and maltreatment. I don't know how the people involved in these disgraceful and abusive practices can sleep at night.

Al Chavez

CaraLyn Banks and Chief Judge Manuel Arrieta, you have it in your power to fix this situation. Please.....do it already.

Felicia R Trujillo

This same thing is happening in Northern NM to my mom. Her court appointed guardian and conservator put her in a nursing home against her wishes 2 wks ago and her home is now for sale. The judges don't have to follow the rule of law especially laws on the books in NM pertaining to guardianships that are for people in need of protection; laws requiring bonding and certification to protect assets. Laws requiring that proper notification of hearings and reports that must be personally delivered to the home. My mothers rights were constantly being violated. Her power of attorney wishes were revoked by the very judge who wrote an opinion piece today about "rule of law". Her son was taken from her and then a court order of visitation wasn't enforced so she rarely sees him. She never could see her bank statements, her car was sold and now her home is on the market. Her beloved dog and cat were taken and now her life as she knew it is gone. It is human and estate trafficking. There's alot of money to be made and the family is helpless because they've been kicked out. No one from the state has oversight and they say their scope is limited. The change has to come by independent oversight of the judges and a way to red flag the predator attorneys. Media coverage is also important.

Emily Hartigan

My friend from birth was whisked away by a craven husband and a predatory attorney, in Texas, and her best friend and I never saw her again. We were unable to locate her, but found out her family trust had been gutted by a stepdaughter [the husband knew he was dying, so made sure the trust went to his daughter whom my friend didn't know] and she had been put in the worst public Home in the state. Other horrors.

This story warns that finding a trustworthy lawyer is a dangerous quest, and judges tend to facilitate the insider scams. There has to be reform.

Catherine Richardson

These kinds of horrific stories are outrageous. They involve seniors and disabled younger people. These heinous guardianship crimes are called estate trafficking. They have been occuring for decades all across the nation. Family members have been removed as guardians so that unscrupulous guardians can steal from vulnerable people. Sometimes physical and sexual abuse occurs. Many times victims are isolated from others. Government authorities do little to nothing to help.

Change must come from reporting like this and public outcry. Please continue to expose these aweful crimes.

Katha Janes

Where can a person get more details on this topic? As a older person I would like to know what red flags a person . in the article the victim and her son sought out a lawyer thinking they were just taking care of business is there other ways an older person can become the victim of the system?

Marcia Southwick

Go to The National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse. www.stopgaurdianabuse.org

Marcia Southwick

Sorry-- that's www.stopguardianabuse.org

JL Barry

It's scary to realize that one of the penalties of aging is not only vulnerability to the usual telemarketing scams, but that the actual court system will prey on you in the interest of "for your own good." Outrageous indeed.

Joshua Ford

Outrage would imply surprise. This is just the system working as intended. What good are these elderly people who are more than likely living off savings, investments or social security and the like? Why not just arrange to have any lacking close by relatives, who also happen to have sufficient assets to make for a decent piggy bank, rounded up by order followers and seize their assets? So what if they have constitutional rights? We can claim it was for their benefit. Besides as state legislators we are the ones who make the law and our families, donors and friends can profit off their otherwise useless to us estates. That is how I see this situation. It makes me angry to see but this kind of thing is just a natural progression of other policies like civil asset forfeiture and while that one is getting removed in name, the practices continue.

Judges are immune from prosecution for any wrongdoing, though they can theoretically be removed from office. I wouldn’t expect anything to change. Though by all means, write letters to the people who voted to make this situation exist.

Marcia Southwick

And heck. If they've got families, guardians ndo what Sandy Meyers does--isolate wards from the families by moving the victim 300 miles away. She has done that and has a reputation for isolating wards from those they love. This is NOT in a wards best interest. Most elders love their children no matter what.. Restraining orders make it simple for Sandy. She doesn't have to bother with the complaints from families. In 2017 it was reported that Myers had not turned in accounting to substantiate her charges to wards' estates. If you were in ANY other profession, this would be cause for investigation and perhaps prison time. But Myers just said woops,, and got away with it. Does she even care about the needs or social needs of the people under her control? Wickedness, greed, and heartlessness, it seems, is the name of the game when it comes to some guardians in our state. The laws have improved but the oversight to ensure the laws are obeyed is pretty much nonexistent. And this is true even AFTER 2 guardian companies in our state were found to be using money stolen from wards to take family vacations, buy houses and fancy cars.

Rhea Maxwell

How can there be zero comments to this horrific story???? Where is the outrage and the action?

Jake Greene

It is outrageous, Rhea. I'm sending copies of this to my state Senator and Rep and asking them to fix this. A complete stranger takes your life from you? And you have no say! Especially, if all an arrogant judge can say is, 'The court has plans for you.' Recall time for Arrieta.

Joshua Ford

This is the system working as intended. The state government chose too write the law in such a way as to incentivize this kind of thing. I don’t condone it, but why would any legislators want this changed? So many opportunities for their families or business partners to profit from seizing the assets of older law abiding citizens with few to no close by relatives... you don’t honestly believe the rationale of this being for their victims benefit? If that were the case then the victims estate wouldn’t be open to be used by the law firms in question as a piggy bank. If the state government has made it a policy to seize people off the street and seize their assets when they have not committed any crimes then it isn’t for anyone’s benefit but for the people who are arranging these kidnappings and sending police along to make it happen.

Marcia Southwick

Please go to stopguardianabuse.org. There is plenty of action and legislation efforts taking place when it comes to what Money Magazine once called "America's Dirty Little Secret." This dark corner of the law is still being exploited in the shadows due to lack of oversight.. The perps just get better at it.

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