Elderly Calif. couple sue to get their freedom back Court to determine their competence

June 18, 1993|By Agustin Gurza | Agustin Gurza,Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- All they want is to go home.

They have said so, over and over, for 10 months. They have told the psychiatrists, the lawyers, the judges and the caretakers who have come in and out of their lives like shadows.

But Dr. Forrest Hayden Howard, 85, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, is not going home. Not now, anyway. And neither is his wife, Catherine Marie Howard, 70, a retired nurse.

Since August, their lives have been in the hands of a court-appointed conservator, who intervened after an Orange County social worker reported that the Howards' house was "dirty and disheveled" and their health neglected.

Since then, the Howards, of Santa Ana, have been separated at times, shuttled from rest home to hospital to psychiatric ward. Their belongings have been packed up and carted away, their life savings have been nearly wiped out, and the house they had lived in since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president may be sold to cover the costs of the care they steadfastly maintain they don't need.

"It seems damn strange because we don't want her," Marie Howard said about the conservator. "She shoved herself in there . . . I wish she would get out of our life and stay out."

The Howards are at the center of a bitter court battle -- between the conservator, who says the couple can't manage their affairs alone, and a family friend who fears that the court's helping hand has done more harm than good.

At a court hearing Monday, an Orange County Superior Court commissioner said the couple is entitled to a trial as soon as possible on a petition to block the sale of their home. But the issue will hinge on the results of a separate court hearing, set for today, on a bid to impose a more restrictive mental health conservatorship on Marie Howard, who remains in a psychiatric hospital.

Their plight epitomizes some of the problems facing the elderly.

The Howards have no children together. Dr. Howard has two grown children from a previous marriage, but they have been estranged from him for about 25 years.

Those fighting over the Howards disagree on central questions: their ability to care for themselves, the condition of their house and their state of mind.

Even two psychiatrists who evaluated the Howards disagreed. One considered them sound enough to go home; another, hired by the conservator, said they were psychotic, needing 24-hour care.

Everyone has acknowledged that the Howards need help. They had neglected to pay bills and deposit checks, and mail was allowed to accumulate inside their home.

Dr. Howard, a diabetic, reportedly was not taking his medicine. His wife, a heavy smoker, was lighting up near oxygen tanks and refusing treatment for high blood pressure and possible cancer.

"If we're going to stand by and let old people in trouble stay in their own homes at great risk to their personal health and safety, then shame on us," said Ernest Hayward, an attorney representing the conservator, Judith A. Okonski.

But Kaycee Howell, a friend challenging the conservatorship, said the system has dismantled the life the Howards built together.

"This is the biggest farce and the biggest injustice," said Ms. Howell, who befriended the couple 13 years ago after selling them a Forest Lawn cemetery plot. She has proposed a low-cost plan to care for the Howards at home. But Ms. Okonski says the plan isn't workable.

While the Howards may need help caring for themselves, they are fully aware of what has happened to them.

In an interview, Dr. Howard said: "We took very good care of ourselves when we were at home, and we can do it again."

In his own chicken-scratch handwriting, he has pleaded with judges to let him return home.

In a letter addressed to Judge Tully H. Seymour, he pointed out the advantages of living at home -- his wife's cooking, the nearby markets "where food is cheaper" and their personal equipment for testing blood-sugar and blood-pressure levels.

"Please, your honor, send us home," Mr. Howard wrote. "We will be ever so grateful."

The Howards' first encounter with the system came, in all likelihood, in response to a call from a concerned person. A county social worker sent by Adult Protective Services visited the Howards last July and referred them to a hospital for observation.

Although a psychiatrist at the hospital determined that the Howards could go home, the hospital called Ms. Okonski, who petitioned the court to be the Howards' conservator. Ms. Okonski then contacted a psychiatrist, Dr. Irwin I. Rosenfeld, who concluded that the Howards suffered from psychosis. They were placed in a board-and-care home.

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