The Frank Report is reporting on the dramatic Bertha Bernal’s case, and on her children’s redoubled efforts to resume visitation with their mother, in the last stages of her life.
The clock is ticking for 93-year-old Bertha, as she spends her last months shut away from her family, effectively a hostage to California Probate Courts, under the broken down Conservatorship System that entrusted her to the care of hostile strangers like her court-appointed Conservator Suzette Smith and her “caregiver” Maila Soliven.
You can read our previous articles, here:
Whistleblower: “It is Elder Abuse.”
A National Advocate for Long-Term Care Residents’ Rights spoke to the Frank Report on the condition of anonymity. As a specialist, and as someone that have known the details of Bertha’s case for many years, the Advocate broke the silence and blew the whistle on this unnacceptable state of affairs.
Frank Report: Can you tell us how you got involved in Bertha’s case, and your personal feelings about the case?
National advocate: Sandi reached out in August of 2016 looking for answers regarding resident rights to visitation by family members. I referred her to the local Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. From the very beginning, I could not understand why Ms. Bernal had a public conservator when there were family members willing to step up. Although, I can imagine that the fact that there was family discord played a huge role.
“I could not understand why Ms. Bernal had a public conservator when there were family members willing to step up.”
Frank Report: In what way is Bertha’s plight typical of the California conservatorship system, and in what aspects is it unusual?
National advocate: Unfortunately, when the court sees that the family is not united, it is typical to appoint an outside person. I believe the unusual aspect is the fact that the Public Conservator has fought to stay in control. One time, several years ago, I spoke to the conservator and she told me that if the family were to go to court to change the conservator, she would support that. So, it was a big surprise when the hearing was held, she fought back to remain as the conservator. The other unusual aspect is the seemingly open effort to distance the resident from the family. Requiring several days notice before coming to see their mother; requiring that they wait until the exact time (no showing up 5 minutes early); and now with COVID, not allowing the family to call their mother and not setting up video chats so that the family can see their mother. While it is the caregiver who is doing this, when the family brings this to the conservator’s attention, nothing is done, which makes it look like the conservator is okay with what the caregiver is doing.’
Frank Report: How many elders you estimate are in a similar situation as Bertha, nationwide?
National advocate: That’s a tough question. I am aware of dozens of cases, but that is just the ones that have become public. The judges in these cases are in total control. And, due to their case loads, I’m sure they can’t monitor them the way they should.
Frank Report: Can there really be any logical, lawful explanation for the refusal of Bertha’s visitation rights?
National advocate: No. It’s my understanding that at the last court hearing, the judge said that visitation was to be allowed.
Frank Report: Is that not elder abuse?
National advocate: I believe it is, especially when California has special laws affording families the right to visit the residents of long-term care facilities.
Frank Report: What is the solution for families in this situation?
National advocate: Another very tough question. Sometimes getting all the parties together with a mediator is helpful. However, this idea has been presented many times over the years and the hard feelings and lack of trust causes both sides to not agree to meeting together. Another solution is to bring the case to the attention of elected officials and the public (hence your involvement!) and hope that any applicable law or enforcement of the law will be demanded.
Frank Report: How did the pandemic impact these relations between families and guardians?
National advocate: I don’t see that it impacted families who were already having difficulty visiting their loved one. What is does is show everyone else how unfair and tragic it is to be told they can’t visit. Although, through the use of technology, window visits and outdoor visits most families have been able to connect.
Frank Report: What can the general public do to help?
National advocate: Hold the Public Conservator accountable. Demand that whoever oversees that office is aware of complaints being directed towards the staff.
Frank Report: What’s your message for Bertha’s family?
National advocate: I feel very sorry that the simple act of being able to call or stop by and talk to a loved one (from 6 feet away) is being denied to you. Bertha lives in a home, not in a huge facility, where meeting on the front porch should not be difficult. I also am so very sorry that I wasn’t able to provide the kind of advocacy that should have ended this case years ago. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be kept away from your mother.
The horrible tragedy that has befallen Bertha Bernal’s family is a legitimate concern for American society, in general. I think we all deserve an answer, maybe even an explanation from conservator Suzette Smith regarding her Conservatee’s visitation rights.
The Frank Report has reached multiple times to Ms. Smith for comments, but apparently the court-appointed professional believes that Bertha’s family and the American public opinion are unworthy of her attention.
We must continue to demand that Bertha Bernal be reunited with her children, now!
You may want to let the Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Task Force know that you agree with the National Advocate: it’s elder abuse.
Together, we can make it. There’s strength in numbers.
In the Northern District of California, the point officials are:
Assistant United States Attorney
Assistant United States Attorney
Elder Justice Program Coordinator