No one should have to live intentionally kept apart from their loved ones.
Moreover, no sick or defenseless elderly parent who has a loving family should have to spend their final years isolated from them, surrounded only by careless and even hostile strangers whose only interest seems to be exploiting the elderly.
That is why Bertha Bernal’s case matters to all of us.
“It’s criminal. It hurts me to see that they do it to other families, too,” Bertha’s daughter Sandra Cobianchi, known in the family as Sandi, says in a trembling voice. “These guardians and conservators are accountable to no one.”
All it took was a family dispute, and the situation turned into a living nightmare for Bertha and her family. A tale of state overreach and lawlessness, of US citizens lost in the inescapable maze of California Probate Courts, and suffering, under the deeply flawed Conservatorship System.
“LIKE A PLAGUE ON THE ELDERLY – PROBATE COURT DRAINS MONEY FROM VULNERABLE“, blasted the Orange County Register in its cover, in 2018. It was not, as we will see, a sensationalist claim, but rather a verifiable tragedy.
The Conservatorship System is “a flawed nationwide system,” Tony Saavedra wrote for the Register, “in which strangers appointed by the court decide where people live, how their money is spent and even who they can see.”
“How can legal professionals have such power over the life of a noncriminal, to the point that even family has no voice?”
Daughter Sandi, who spoke exclusively to the Frank Report, has no doubt about what is taking place all across the US: “That’s elderly abuse, to me.”
A little over a dozen years ago, Bertha Bernal, then in her early eighties, was happily living on her own. A widow of a WW2 and Korean War veteran, Jack Lara Bernal, Bertha, now 93, has four children: two daughters, Cathleen and Sandra, and two sons, Anthony and Michael.
Family members who were close to her began detecting signs indicative of dementia. The situation progressed until, in 2008, Bertha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
When the problem was first detected, it was discussed in the family, and all siblings agreed that she needed daily assistance with tasks such as food or taking her medicine on time – we all know how dealing with many daily prescription pills can be confusing to anyone, let alone an elderly lady with dementia.
Her daughter, who was living in the San Francisco Bay area, had to move in, to help Bertha sell her house to make a cash reserve and face her new situation. The family subsequently found an elderly home for Bertha to live in.
At this juncture, there was a disagreement with a relative over certain decisions, as well as arguments over money. Finally, the situation escalated into a bitter family dispute.
That dispute landed on Probate Court.
And that’s when the unspeakable nightmare begins for Bertha and her family.
“It’s called probate court, and — used properly — it can be a way to protect the elderly and disabled from physical and financial bullying by family and friends.” But, Tony Saavedra found, probate court “also can open the door for high-priced professionals to swallow a client’s life savings and the family’s future inheritance.”
In Orange County probate court, a Guardian Ad Litem was appointed to Bertha Bernal: a woman by the name of Gianna Gruenwald. With Bertha incapacitated by dementia and the family at odds, the Guardian Ad Litem was supposed to advocate for Bertha’s best interests.
According to daughter Sandi, that is NOT how it worked. “She spent approximately an hour a year with Mom, but her opinion was treated as gospel by the court, and the judge looked up to her for answers, even though she was not informed of day-to-day realities.”
The 2018 investigation by the Southern California News Group on the probate court situation is faithfully reproduced here by the circumstances of Bertha’s case.
“The family is fighting,” Gianna repeatedly told the court. According to the siblings, she continuously misrepresented the nature of the family conflict.
Indeed, critics in California have been vocal about how “Guardians and Conservators often play one side of the family against the other”.
“It’s a sticky situation that can become a strain on the limited resources of the client, who is billed for the salaries and legal fees of the professionals involved in probate cases.”
In Bertha’s case, the playbook is in full display: Gianna brought along with her fiduciary advisor Cristina Erickson-Taube who, at times, insisted on having paid external caregiver services, even though Bertha already had caregivers in the house she was living in.
A colossal waste of money.
The pattern of padding the bills and squandering the money away seems apparent.
When Bertha had an eye infection, Sandi had to fight hard and long with the guardian to take her Mom to a doctor. The infection had by then spread to both eyes.
Just imagine that a guardian could have the power to even deny medical care to an elderly lady, and overturn family decisions in this field.
“The conservators, guardians, fiduciaries, their attorneys and judges become almost cliquish in running people’s lives,” found Saavedra.
They cover each other’s backs, and get away with grave irregularities, even – it would seem – elderly abuse.
Eventually Gianna Gruenwald was taken out of the case.
A new Conservator was nominated for Bertha Bernal. The siblings, at first, did not object. They must have felt, nothing could be worse than the guardian.
They were wrong.
Bertha was moved from the good home she was (and where she was reportedly thriving) to an atria home in Irvine, California.
Sudden moves, we all know, are cruel to people with dementia.
Sandi had to fight even to get vitamin supplements for her Mom’s Alzheimer’s. Then it was “no overnight stay” for her granddaughter. Then it was “no meals for visitors.” Hygiene complaints in the house were also an issue.
Eventually Bertha was forced to change yet again to another atria home, because, as they said Bertha “would try to use her walker down the stairs.”
At this point, while Bertha’s children felt there was “little concern about her best interests” and the problems were many, at least there was a constant and normal visitation schedule.
While that seemed like an inalienable right, soon, that would also be at risk.
Court then goes on to appoint Suzette Smith – and the family approves, because she promises to investigate the alleged overcharging and false billing by Cristina Erickson.
IT WAS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF THEIR LIVES.
As Linda Kincaid, from the Coalition for Elder and Disability Rights, told the Register: “Once the conservatorship is in place, there is essentially no court oversight or accountability. Conservators and their agents are free to exploit and abuse with impunity.”
Bertha’s conservator, Suzette Smith manages 60 families. She shows the exact care for each one that this sheer number would suggest. She seems to be dealing in volume, trying to maximize her upside.
Things instantly became more and more restrictive. More and more ‘rules’, and even going to the point of hanging up the phone on family members, as she admitted in court.
The investigation Suzette promised was just for show. They didn’t even bother to relay the non-findings to the family.
Even more tragic, Suzette chose a problematic caregiver, Maila Soliven. She is “an opinionated, aggressive woman” who loves her Pradas, and displayed an incredible contempt towards the elderly she should be caring for.
The Conservator took Bertha out of her atria home and installed her in a Board and Care run by Maila, subjecting the elderly lady with dementia to yet another change.
Bertha pleaded for Sandi to stay with her during the move: “I want my daughter to go with me.” Caregiver Maila ignored her, and stuck a finger in Sandi’s face, saying: “You’re staying here. I’m taking your Mom.”
Whenever Sandi reacted to defend her mother, they used it against her in court.
In California and all-around America, conservators have a well-earned bad reputation. Total unaccountability begets abuse and criminal behavior.
At Maila’s “Home,” where Bertha is living, her children can never arrive unannounced, because apparently the caregiver needs to ‘stage’ the conditions that she is kept in before a family member can see her.
Once, as Sandi arrived, the worker in the home frantically called Maila, who ordered: “Don’t let her in until I get there.”
But Bertha saw her daughter across the screen-door.
“Why don’t you let my daughter in?” she cried.
THAT’S ABUSE OF THE WORST KIND.
Sandi left the scene to avoid a confrontation. But she never leaves a fight.
People around her urge her to just give up. “Stop. Walk away. You did what you can.”
But can you really give up on your own mother? WHO CAN ASK THAT OF THEIR FELLOW HUMAN BEING?
The situation worsened even more with the advent of the pandemic, when the very restrictive visitation, reduced to a very limited amount of phone calls.
At Maila’s place, the elderly are permitted to talk to their family members “only once a week for a few minutes.”
THAT’S ELDERLY ABUSE.
Consequently, Bertha’s condition is “deteriorating rather rapidly”.
“When am I going see you? I miss you. I love you.” From the depths of Alzheimer’s, Bertha can still find the strength to call for help. But for how long?
It breaks our hearts. It should break yours, too.
Bertha Bernal needs justice – NOW.
[Frank Report reached out to the conservator Suzette Smith and the caregiver Maila Soliven, Neither has responded to our request for comment.]
Stay tuned for part 2.