We like to think that America is a nation of rights, of equal treatment under the law, a nation that respects the dignity of every individual citizen, regardless of race, color, or creed. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights enshrined these attitudes into law, and we venerate them and tell ourselves that ours is a noble and compassionate country.
Yet there are certain classes of people who effectively have no rights. They are deemed, by virtue of who they are, not to warrant the same autonomy the rest of us enjoy. Some of these are children, whose age disqualifies them from exercising the same rights as adults. I’ve written extensively about the plight of those diagnosed mentally ill and how they are subject to the most horrific abuses with little or no recourse. A third class of persons, forced to live at the mercy of the state, consists of the nation’s elderly.
The New Yorker recently ran an exposé on the practice of legal guardianship, and the findings are shocking. Most people are probably aware that it is possible to commit elderly dementia patients with doctors’ recommendations and court orders, but few understand how broad these powers actually are.
A holdover from British law that regards the state as the “parent” of its citizens provides a legal route to rob individuals of their rights, with little trace of anything resembling due process. Court-appointed guardians can force the elderly to leave their homes, relocate to assisted-living facilities, and relinquish control of their assets without ever notifying them or their next of kin. The imposition of guardianship is sudden and confusing, leaving the victims little chance to obtain adequate legal representation to defend their rights.
Once the guardians get their hands on their wards’ finances, they can exploit those resources for their own gain and charge family members hefty fees just for visiting or calling their elderly relatives. The process is not unlike that of a kidnapper extracting ransom money from desperate families.
There is no medical legitimacy to guardianship, as the wards need not have been diagnosed with dementia or any other brain disease that would render them incapable of acting autonomously. Instead, the decision to rob people of their rights rests solely on a judgment call made by the courts, where the situation is decidedly one-sided. When a professional used to manipulating the legal system goes up against a scared retiree who has never set foot in court before, it’s no surprise which one usually comes out on top.
The ostensible purpose of the state is to protect the vulnerable from those who would abuse them. In this case, however, as in so many others, the exact opposite is true. Men and women are being stripped of their autonomy for no reason other than their age and their inability to defend themselves, and their assets being handed over to opportunistic predators — all aided and abetted by the courts under the ironic guise of compassion.
People don’t stop being people when they get older. The Constitution doesn’t suddenly stop applying to them. We need to stop pretending that efforts to control and manipulate the population are motivated by anything other than malice, cruelty, and greed. You simply can’t help people by turning them into wards of the state.