RALEIGH — In late March, Robert Anthony Watkins ran into his fathers burning home, yelling Dad! as he helped firefighters rescue Oscar Pete Watkins from a rampaging fire.
During the next two months, as his father, 75, recovered from devastating burns, Robert Watkins was awarded legal guardianship of Pete Watkins affairs, only to have the status removed by the Wake County Clerk Of Courts office less than two weeks later.
Robert Watkins, 51, has a record of criminal convictions that includes multiple felonies. And according to filings in the case, he had begun dipping into his fathers holdings, estimated at more than $450,000, mostly in the form of the downtown building he once ran as Watkins Grill, now the Oakwood Grill.
Efforts to reach Robert Watkins were not successful.
His brief guardianship career is an example of the potential pitfalls of the process, said Lorrin Freeman, Wake County Clerk of Superior Court. Watkins slipped through the cracks of a system that handles nearly 500 such appointed guardianships a year and uses criminal background checks to test their fitness as guardians, Freeman said.
We basically are giving an individual control over somebodys life, Freeman said. That includes everything from what medical care they get, to where they live, to what they can buy, to whom they can associate with.
Through May 31 of this year, the clerks office awarded guardianships at the rate of almost two per business day. Watkins was the only case where guardianship was rescinded because of improper handling of the wards affairs.
The numbers of court-appointed guardianships have been steadily increasing as the aging population grows and more older people lose the ability to make or communicate their decisions. And many have designated no one to look after their personal and financial affairs.
Elsewhere in Wake government, the Department of Human Services either directly or through contract agencies takes over guardianship for more than 600 mostly indigent people annually.
Its pretty overwhelming, said Craig Burrus, director of Senior and Adult Services for Wake.
The number of people under guardianship overseen by human services grows by 15 percent to 20 percent a year, he said.
Discord in the family
Nationally, both the American Bar Association and the National Center for State Courts have performed studies and made suggestions for the improvement of guardianships, called conservatorships in some states.
When we appoint individuals as guardians, we have begun a practice of running criminal history background checks, Freeman said. The other thing we have done in the last year and a half is to have mandatory guardianship training.
Conducted at the Elder Law Clinic at the Campbell University law school, the training acquaints new guardians with the extensive requirements of holding the position of trust. Guardians can:
• Take responsibility for a wards day-to-day needs as a guardian of the person.
• Look after financial matters with strict reporting requirements as a guardian of the estate.
• Handle both roles as a general guardian.
Deputy Clerk Bill Burlington said its usually best for a family member to take on guardianship roles. However, its sadly common for a family member to attempt to abuse the privilege, or for members of the same family to have vastly different ideas about whats best for the person who has been judged incompetent.
Its not unusual to have discord in the family, said Burlington, who noted that one recent case involved 30 hours of hearings over whether an agency should be replaced by a family member.
If theres a suitable family member, we try to make it a family member, he said. The test for me in appointing the guardian is what is in the best interest of the ward.
In Pete Watkins case, another layer of protection emerged: the extended family. According to records of the hearing, numerous family members came to support the removal of Robert Watkins and his replacement with Joseph Hodge Jr. of Durham, a nephew. The hearing brought out evidence that Robert Watkins had made $8,000 in cash withdrawals something guardians arent allowed to do from about $30,000 his father had in credit union accounts.
The court will remove Robert Watkins for misconduct in office with the credit union, Burlingtons order read, also mentioning Robert Watkins unsuitability because of his criminal record. State corrections records show that Robert Anthony Watkins has convictions going back to 1998 for DWIs, possession of a Schedule II drug, possession of drug paraphernalia, multiple convictions for driving on a revoked license and for speeding.
Most of the money will be retrieved in the Watkins case, court officials said. But attempts by relatives to take advantage of older people in perilous situations continue.
More help needed
The several hundred wards looked after by Wake County Human Services are recommended by hospitals, mental institutions, social workers and others, said Burrus, the Wake official in charge of the guardianships. In cases where a ward has assets, the guardian can earn a commission on the amount of the estates revenue. But those overseen by the county rarely have assets beyond the government benefit that pays for their keep at a long-term care home.
Youre supposed to make sure that they have all the benefits that they are eligible for, Burrus said. The statute requires that we have a face-to-face meeting twice a year.
Each of the eight social workers who work monitoring wards have more than 50 clients each.
They should have about 35 each, thats the state-recommended level, Burrus said.
An era of general belt-tightening at all levels of government is making it harder to make sure to assure good care for people who, by definition, cant look after themselves. North Carolina already has more than a million people older than 65, and that population is projected to make up 18 percent of state population by 2030.
When you look at the aging population across the country, we certainly expect to see an increase in the number of guardianships, Freeman said.