First of two articles
Virginia Hinton was a Radcliffe graduate, world traveler and the former wife of a history scholar. But in her most vulnerable years, her life came undone. She suffered first from alcoholism, then mild dementia. At 75, she owned a house in Rockville but ended up living on street corners and sleeping at a shelter.
Into this downward spiral came a guardian: In 1996, D.C. Superior Court appointed attorney Rozan Cater to oversee Hinton's care, safeguard her finances and get her off the streets.
But over the next five years, thousands of dollars disappeared from Hinton's bank account, court records show. Cater ignored the tax bills on Hinton's home so long that the property was confiscated. Hinton remained homeless, spending her days on sidewalks and in abandoned buildings, where she said she was beaten.
Hinton "prefers to reside in city shelters," Cater wrote to court officials, who did nothing.
As a neglected ward of D.C. Superior Court, Virginia Hinton was not alone.
The court's probate division, which is mandated to care for more than 2,000 elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded residents, has repeatedly allowed its charges to be forgotten and victimized, an investigation by The Washington Post has found. Chaotic record-keeping, lax oversight and low expectations in this division of the court have created a culture in which guardians are rarely held accountable. They are often handed new work even when they have ignored their charges or let them languish in unsafe conditions.
Rozan Cater ignored many of her clients and improperly spent or wasted nearly $250,000 from their accounts, according to court investigators' documents. Cater, who said she did not take any client funds, was one of the court's busiest lawyers. From 1992 until 2000, judges appointed her 70 times to represent D.C. residents who could not fend for themselves. During that period, she collected $118,000 in fees from her appointments, court documents show.
The Post's review of more than 10 years of case dockets and hundreds of court files, as well as interviews with more than 200 judges, attorneys, and clients and their families, found hundreds of cases where court-appointed protectors violated court requirements. Since 1995, one of five guardians has gone years without reporting to the court. Some have not visited their ailing charges. In more than two dozen cases, guardians or conservators have taken or mishandled money.
Neglectful caretakers are rarely disciplined, D.C. bar records show. Even when they have been caught stealing or cheating clients, attorneys can go as long as nine years before they are punished.
In about 240 cases since 1992, judges have reappointed lawyers who had been sanctioned or otherwise brought to the court's notice for serious problems, such as mismanaged money, according to a review of court records. Many of these lawyers were eventually removed from at least one subsequent case as well.
Rozan Cater was taken off a court list of eligible probate attorneys in 1999 for neglecting 84-year-old Rosebud White and ignoring a judge's order to explain herself. A few months later, then-presiding Judge Cheryl M. Long reinstated Cater to the case and the list. In fact, more than half of Cater's appointments came after the court was warned that tens of thousands of dollars was missing from the account of one of Cater's clients.
Gloria Johnson, a longtime probate lawyer, was taken off the list of eligible attorneys in November 1998 when she failed to appear at a hearing. But two weeks later, a judge bypassed the list and gave her a new case. Johnson was reinstated to the list after she apologized. She was taken off the list again in January for a similar offense. In February, a judge approved two new assignments.
Attorney Jacqueline Moore was removed from a case in 1996 after she allowed her client's only asset -- her $158,000 house -- to fall into such disrepair that its value dropped to $90,000. Yet judges appointed Moore six more times to be the protector or advocate for new clients.
The current and previous heads of Superior Court, Judge Rufus G. King III and Senior Judge Eugene Hamilton, said in interviews that they would not knowingly tolerate court-appointed attorneys who fail their clients.
King said some judges may give new appointments to lawyers because they are not aware of previous problems.
He said that in some instances, he thought it was appropriate to reappoint a lawyer with past problems -- if mistakes have been corrected, for example. And a lawyer removed for poorly managing a client's money might be capable of overseeing another's health care, he said.
Hamilton said he would hesitate to ban lawyers from future appointments simply because they've been removed from a case.
"You have to be careful about barring someone from cases," said Hamilton, who oversaw the probate division from 1991 until 1993. "It may be the person's only source of practice."
King added that the court improved its training and strengthened the qualifications required of probate attorneys last year. He pointed out that a court rule requiring conservators to be insured by bonding companies has allowed repayment in most cases where money was mishandled or stolen.
"Certainly if there is a finding that money has been lost through the fault of the lawyer, there shouldn't be a reappointment," he said. "There have been some problems with the court-appointed lawyers who have mishandled appointments. . . . Some cases slipped through, and they should not have."
Over the past decade, the court has had responsibility for an estimated 4,000 city residents. It operates out of a handful of courtrooms at D.C. Superior Court under Judge Kaye K. Christian, the no-nonsense judge who closed District schools in the 1990s for fire code violations and in 2000 ordered the city's child welfare director arrested for failing to appear in court. She works with another full-time judge, Jose Lopez, and a few senior judges called in periodically to help manage cases. Together, they oversee the estates of the dead and the care of people unable to manage their affairs.
The judges assign a guardian to look after a person's well-being or a conservator to manage finances. In roughly half the cases, a family member is appointed. In other cases, it is usually an attorney from a court list, although judges can name whomever they want.
The list has fallen from about 240 to 160 since the requirement was instituted last year that lawyers receive at least six hours of training and provide information on any ethical or other violations.
Guardians and conservators can have vast powers, from choosing housing and medical care to investing money and paying bills. Lawyers receive $80 an hour, paid from a public fund when clients are indigent. Clients with assets pay at the attorney's hourly rate, often more than $200 an hour, once a judge approves the fees.
District law and court policies recognize the critical responsibilities of guardians and conservators and the potential for abuse or neglect. The attorneys are required by law to file a written report to the court regularly -- twice a year for guardians, annually for conservators -- on the status of clients and their money.
When those reports don't come in, court officials are supposed to send a delinquency notice. If the guardians don't correct the problem, court officials are required to alert judges, who are supposed to summon the guardians to a hearing to explain the lapses.
In half of 783 long-term guardianships initiated between 1995 and 2000, caretakers filed no reports for 18 months or more, missing their deadlines by at least a year, according to The Post's review of records. In 170 of those cases, no reports were filed within three years. In 127, or about one-sixth of the cases, the guardians never reported back after they were appointed.
In the case of Clarence Culbertson, who is mentally ill, the court received no reports for five years, and with the exception of one delinquency notice, did nothing about it.
Culbertson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties, and he gradually became unable to care for himself after his parents died. He ended up living on the streets.
Life improved when the court appointed a lawyer to pay his bills and manage his affairs. When that attorney moved out of town in 1995, Culbertson's care was turned over to D.C. attorney Jacqueline Moore, who later placed Culbertson in a group home on Ninth Street NW. The home was trash-strewn, live wires dangled from the ceilings, and residents accused the landlady of stealing their food, court documents showed. The door was chained to keep residents inside.
Culbertson and his housemates would climb out a second-floor window and shimmy down a neighbor's porch to escape. In February 2000, the neighbor called the city, and the fire department condemned the group home. That June, judges finally found out what had happened to Culbertson after a disabilities advocacy group demanded an emergency court investigation.
The investigator, attorney Robert A. Gazzola, recommended that Moore be fired. But Judge Long disagreed, finding "no negligence or misconduct of any kind" by Moore. Long, then presiding probate judge, blamed "the unsubstantiated complaints of the mentally ill [Culbertson]" for "unnecessarily" subjecting Moore to an investigation.
During an August 2000 hearing, Moore said she could not report on Culbertson's status for years because her computer had crashed and she had needed surgery.
"There have been a string of events," Moore explained to the judge.
"I understand," replied Long, according to the hearing transcript. "I understand."
Moore, 62, did not return telephone calls and did not respond to a letter sent to her office seeking comment. Long would not comment on this and other cases.
Moore later resigned, and Culbertson, 48, is now in the care of a new protector. Moore continued to receive appointments, often at taxpayer expense.
Court officials in the District have long been aware of flaws in their monitoring, which relies on clerks searching files by hand.
"We'd like to catch everybody who is overdue, but that hasn't happened," Judge King said. He predicted that a new computer system, scheduled for fall 2004, will help track delinquent attorneys.
Register of Wills Constance G. Starks, the probate court's administrator, said in a written statement that her staff was cut in the 1990s but has nevertheless improved its monitoring of cases. In 70 percent of cases, she said, guardians correct problems before they are called to appear before a judge, compared with 40 percent in 1995. She attributes the improvement to a better system of notifying guardians when they are behind in filing court reports.
A Tight Circle
The small group of professionals who earn their living in probate court know each other well. They share business and recommend one another for court appointments. The lawyers say they make a point to befriend the clerks. The judges say they often appoint attorneys they trust. It's not easy to break into their circle.
"If the judge doesn't know you or doesn't like you, they don't put you on the case," said one attorney who has received two appointments in 10 years. He asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize future appointments.
The tight circle embraced John Fauntleroy Jr., a probate attorney and son of a 1970s-era Superior Court judge, the late John Douglass Fauntleroy.
By the mid-1990s, John Fauntleroy Jr. had been given a steady stream of cases. Court records show he often failed to visit his clients, pay their bills, report on their condition to the court and show up at hearings.
Over a six-year period, Fauntleroy was offered repeated extensions when he missed deadlines. He failed to file more than 35 reports with the court.
Fauntleroy let deadlines pass at least seven times in the case of James Lipford, a 94-year-old nursing home resident. Over several years, judges granted fees for $13,700, more than half of Lipford's $22,000 in cash assets. Despite his overdue reports, Judge Long approved Fauntleroy's fees, which court records show is rare. The court didn't learn for a year and a half that Lipford had died.
In October 1996, citing mistakes in the Lipford case, Long barred Fauntleroy from future appointments by removing him from the court's list of eligible attorneys. But within seven months, Long gave him two additional cases: supervising the estate of a 35-year-old man and representing a 65-year-old woman in a guardianship proceeding.
At the time, other clients of Fauntleroy's were suffering. Geraldine Harrison, 82, a retired teacher and former civic association president, was without electricity and telephone service because Fauntleroy didn't pay the bills, court records show. She was sleeping on a living room couch because he hadn't paid a contractor to fix a leaking roof.
"Doesn't anyone supervise this man?" Harrison wrote in a 1997 letter to another attorney in the case. "This is outrageous. . . . Where is all of my money?"
Later, she was forced to leave a nursing home because Fauntleroy failed to pay the bill, court records show. Harrison's relatives realized that Fauntleroy had applied for a large second mortgage on Harrison's home without notifying the family. A court investigator later found that he had taken $11,550 from Harrison's account.
In fall 1998, the court was told that Fauntleroy had taken $12,500 without approval from another client's account, that of 50-year-old Kathleen Suggs. Judges Christian and Long ordered him to appear before them to answer questions about several cases. He failed to show up so many times that Christian issued three bench warrants for him.
Fauntleroy and his bonding company have been ordered to repay $115,124 to seven clients for money he took or mishandled, according to court records. In September 2001, he agreed to be disbarred.
"I was overwhelmed by a tremendous amount of work," Fauntleroy, 47, said in a telephone interview. "I only had sporadic and temporary clerical help. I had enough work for several lawyers."
Antoinette Jackson-Campbell, the eldest daughter of Geraldine Harrison, blamed the court for not demanding that Fauntleroy do his job.
"His father is a somebody, so they let him do as he pleased," she said. "My mother was somebody special. And she deserved better."
A Host of Complaints
By the mid-1990s, Rozan Cater was among the small cadre of lawyers whose income depended heavily on probate appointments. Cater grew up in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of the District, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She began practicing as a criminal defense lawyer and then moved to probate cases. Within a few years, complaints began to surface, court records show.
In 1996, the great-grandmother of a boy whose finances had been put in Cater's hands warned court clerks that the child was going to be expelled from his Catholic school because Cater hadn't paid his tuition.
That same year, the daughter of an 80-year-old woman complained that her mother, under Cater's care and suffering from dementia, was in jeopardy living alone in an apartment.
During the same period, Cater was appointed to protect Virginia Hinton, the homeless woman whose Rockville home had been confiscated. Hinton's brother, Page W.T. Stodder, had asked to be his sister's guardian after police brought her to St. Elizabeths Hospital. Judge Christian determined that it should be a local attorney.
Shortly after her appointment, Cater told the court that she had hired a social worker to find Hinton a place to live. When that didn't succeed, Cater didn't hire another. Then, over the next 30 months, Cater filed no updates to the court on Hinton's condition, and no court officials followed up with her.
"This would never have happened if they had appointed me or the court had been competently checking up on Ms. Cater," Stodder said in a telephone interview.
Christian would not comment on this or other cases.
Cater never found Hinton a home. But she saw her regularly, when Hinton would stop by Cater's Indiana Avenue NW office to pick up spending money.
"Virginia Hinton would come to my office so urine-soaked that I had to throw out the furniture after she sat in it," Cater, 49, said in an interview in December. Hinton refused to take her medication, Cater said. "We took her to numerous homes we thought were suitable. . . . She refused all of them. Some kind of allergy."
It wasn't until 2001 -- five years after Cater's appointment -- thatJudge Lopez appointed a new guardian and conservator for Hinton. He allowed Cater to withdraw from the case rather than remove her. Lopez said in an interview that he prefers to allow attorneys to withdraw because removing them can harm their reputations.
Within weeks of Cater's departure, the new guardian, Ken Loewinger, began to pay the back taxes on Hinton's house to retrieve it from Montgomery County and found Hinton a place to live in Friendship Terrace, a retirement home in Northwest Washington.
"You've got an elderly, mentally disabled woman living on the street who can't take care of herself or her affairs . . . and Cater failed to do her basic job to protect her," Loewinger said.
In an interview at her top-floor apartment with a broad vista of Washington, Hinton said that Cater always seemed busy. "Rozan had too many cases to handle," she said.
Hinton said she was relieved to be out of shelters and in a safe, clean building. She was calm and alert and clearly recalled being assaulted in an empty D.C. building and being treated at Providence Hospital.
In Hinton's case and several others handled by Cater in the mid- to late 1990s, court investigators found that money was missing. In 1998, court auditors learned that $42,000 had disappeared from the accounts of Charlie Mae Morton, an 89-year-old woman who had been in Cater's care.
Cater told the court that her secretary, Lena Summers, had forged Cater's signature on 34 checks from Morton's account and also had taken $5,150 from Hinton's accounts.
Cater had represented Summers on a theft charge, then hired her in 1993 after her release from jail. She said she hasn't seen Summers since she disappeared in fall 1996. Summers could not be located to comment.
In six cases, court investigators found that Cater had written over $45,000 in checks to a law school friend, Sheila Latham, who has since been indicted on charges of embezzling nearly $73,000 in a separate case in Texas. Cater said Latham helped her catch up on her work.
Cater said in an interview that she did not steal funds from any clients.
"Every penny of these people's money that I've ever had, I've tried to account for to the best of my abilities," Cater said. "I have not tried to steal anything from anybody, in spite of the fact that I've not been paid in many of these cases."
Neither Latham, who lives in Texas, nor her attorney responded to phone messages or letters requesting comment.
In 2002, the court for the first time referred a Cater case to federal prosecutors. A court-appointed investigator had discovered that Cater had withdrawn $17,000 from the bank account of Elizabeth Wharton, a nursing home resident who had worked as a maid and elevator operator. The U.S. attorney's office is investigating the case.
Cater attributed many of her problems to the demands of caring for her ailing parents. She said the final responsibility was not hers.
"My priority was my family, and it will be. And I don't care," she said. "I think it's more a criticism of the court, quite frankly. If I'm remiss in my duties, it seems to me that the court should have pulled me on the carpet for that right away. . . . Why haven't they removed me? Why haven't they done any of those things that are put in place to safeguard and to check?"
Cater has been removed from many cases and faces suspension of her law license.
As of last week, she remained on record as the person responsible for the money and care of 77-year-old Charles Harris, who suffers from mental illness.
In 2000, city officials suggested that the court consider removing Cater from the case. They complained Harris was about to be evicted from a group home because Cater failed to pay his room and board, records show. A District caseworker said in an interview last week that Harris was forced to leave the group home and now rents a room in Northwest Washington. The caseworker said she has not heard from Cater in many months.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
For video interviews, court documents, an online discussion and more, go to www.washingtonpost.com/guardian.
TOMORROW: High costs and hasty decisions in guardianship cases.