Hospitalized for alcoholism and malnourishment last year, Isabelle Jessich now can’t break free from court control.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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'I feel like I'm in jail'

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 20, 2011 - 11:38 AM
Last summer, incapacitated by malnutrition and a prolonged bout of heavy drinking, Isabelle Jessich was removed from the filthy bed in her Edina home and taken to a nearby hospital. A month later, with no improvement in her mental condition, the state courts took over Jessich's life, making all decisions on where she would live and how she would get better.

These days, Jessich bears little resemblance to the disheveled woman who refused to leave her bed. She lives in a nursing home, where she is able to eat, dress herself and use the bathroom without assistance. Though she still uses a wheelchair because of persistent dizziness, she exercises each day on a recumbent stepper machine. She has been sober and well fed for a year. In May, her neurologist pronounced her healthy enough to move back home.

Yet three months later, Jessich remains at the Robbinsdale nursing home, her future in the hands of a court-appointed professional guardian. Jessich, 56, has discovered a painful fact about the Minnesota guardianship system: It's set up for permanent oversight of people no longer able to make decisions for themselves. In fact, the more Jessich tries to take control of her life, the harder the system has fought to keep her a ward of the state.

"I'm not saying I didn't make mistakes," Jessich says. "Is that a crime? What the heck am I doing here?"

Jessich's deepest concern is not for herself, but for her teenage daughter, Allison. Since Jessich went into institutional care last year, her 16-year-old daughter has mostly fended for herself, depending on friends, relatives and neighbors for a place to sleep and something to eat. Her mother has come so far since last year, Allison says, that she is ready to be a parent again.

"Just let my mom come home," Allison says. "If she could prove to them there's a reason she has to be locked up like she is, then let her prove it."

Protection vs. rights

About 22,000 Minnesotans live under the authority of court-appointed guardians and conservators, and about 3,000 new cases are added each year. Complaints about misconduct prompted legislators to strengthen state oversight of the largely unregulated profession this spring, but the new laws do not require certification of people wanting to be guardians and conservators, a requirement in several other states.

As Jessich's case shows, the courts continue to wrestle with how to protect the liberties of those deemed incapable of making decisions, while granting guardians the power they need to do their jobs, such as making decisions on living arrangements, health care and spending for their wards.

Advocates on both sides agree that individuals with chemical dependency and mental illness issues don't fit well in a system designed to handle people with typically irreversible conditions such as Alzheimers and dementia.

"The guardianship law was envisioned to be a helpful law: someone to come in and assist you with your affairs when you are unable to care for your own affairs,'' said Roberta Opheim, the state's mental health ombudsman. "It wasn't ... believed to be a restriction of rights, but in practice, it becomes that way in many cases."

The burden is on individuals, who must prove they are ready to leave the system. "It should be a fairly high bar in order to protect them,'' said Anita Raymond, a social worker who trains guardians through the nonprofit Volunteers of America. "It shouldn't be an impossible bar to cross, and I don't think it is."

Jessich shared her story out of frustration. Even her court-appointed guardian, Joseph Vogel, has acknowledged that she is ready to live in a less restrictive setting.

"Isabelle remains in an institution beyond the time she needs to be there, causing her great distress," Vogel wrote in a June 4 legal filing.

Jessich says she deeply distrusts Vogel. She says she believes he is more interested in protecting her six-figure inheritance than her own welfare, and she accuses him of trying to limit her access to friends and to her property.

Jessich wasn't aware of her newly codified rights, which were part of this year's reform legislation, until shown a copy by a newspaper reporter.

Vogel did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Two decades in America

Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, Jessich speaks with a strong accent and sometimes has trouble understanding when people speak to her in English instead of her native French. She came to the United States in 1990 when her marriage was failing to live near the family of her Minnesota-born stepfather.

She settled into a middle-class life as a single mother of three in Edina, working in clothing stores, living in a comfortable five-bedroom house. In recent years, her mother lived with her and the family primarily lived on the mother's income.

Jessich was a light eater and a heavy drinker, sometimes putting away as many as 10 beers a day. By last spring, those habits were threatening her life.

She was in despair over her aging mother's health problems. On June 5, 2008, Jessich, disoriented and weak, was brought to Fairview Southdale Hospital by concerned friends and family members.

The next month, a Hennepin County judge ordered that Jessich be committed to treatment for chemical dependency and mental illness because she was a "danger to herself."

She spent several months at the Robbinsdale Rehab nursing home before entering a detox center for the first time in November. She was sober and regaining strength, but she hadn't been able to walk for six months. She was suffering from memory loss and involuntary eye movements. Her neurologist concluded that she was suffering a form of brain disorder caused by alcoholism.

In October, Jessich's eldest child, Christopher Jessich, filed a petition to have a professional guardian and conservator appointed for his mother, saying she was unable to make decisions for herself and warning that she was vulnerable to financial exploitation. The last point took on added urgency when Jessich's mother died of a heart condition on Nov. 1. Her still unsettled estate, left to Jessich and a brother in Belgium, consisted of two Belgian houses worth more than $500,000.

Caught in the system

Initially, Jessich didn't complain when Vogel was granted a six-month guardianship. But she started to fight back when it became clear the system did not have to let her go.

In March, she formally challenged the guardianship order by appealing to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. By then, she had a medical expert on her side. On March 26, her neurologist, Dr. Susan Evans of the Noran Neurological Clinic, concluded that Jessich had "normal mental capacity." On May 19, Evans was more specific: "It is my opinion that Ms. Jessich is, at this time, able to live and exist in her home without difficulty."

Though Jessich completed her chemical dependency treatment this spring, Hennepin District Court Referee Bruce Kruger has twice extended Vogel's appointment. County officials also took steps to extend her involuntary commitment. The fear was that without continued oversight, "Ms. Jessich will drink herself to death," assistant county attorney Reid Raymond testified on May 5.

Vogel, by contrast, focused on Jessich's finances in his court appearance. He estimated it would cost $12,000 per month for her to live at home, including $8,500 for a personal aide to prepare her meals and take care of her medical needs. Vogel said Jessich couldn't afford that, noting she only had $290 in available cash.

"If she has the funds, I would certainly support her going home," Vogel testified.

But that analysis overlooks Jessich's biggest local asset, her split-level home in Edina. Jessich could earn anywhere from $160,000 to $240,000 by selling the house, according to estimates provided in court by Vogel and Jessich's son.

Kruger also took note of her finances when he once again extended Vogel's guardianship in June. While he agreed that Jessich "continues to improve and has been sober since the summer of 2008," Kruger concluded that Jessich "does not understand her limitations." He cited Jessich's "non-cooperation with Vogel" as evidence of her poor decision making. He also dismissed Evans' medical opinion, noting that "prior testing" showed Jessich's mind was functioning at the "borderline level."

Back at the nursing home, Jessich was despondent.

"It's only a question of money. It's incredible," she said. "I feel like I'm in jail."

In July, the guardian gave Jessich a taste of freedom. Vogel allowed her to spend a night at home with her daughter, under the supervision of two out-of-town friends who had communicated with Jessich's son.

The gesture made Jessich rethink her strategy. Instead of fighting Vogel, which has proven to be a losing battle, she told the court she was willing to remain under his care. With the support of her court-appointed lawyer, Jessich recently signed a handwritten affidavit dropping her legal appeal and stating she remains "incapacitated," even though she is firmly convinced of her sanity.

"I signed that paper because they told me if I did, they would let me go back home," she said. The attorney, Thomas Donohue, did not respond to requests for an interview.

As Jessich waits, Vogel has sold off her 2003 BMW to help pay some of her overdue bills. Jessich's daughter tries to get a ride to Robbinsdale to visit her mother once a week.

"I'm worried about my daughter,'' Jessich said. "I want to go home, back to my life.... For me to be here is an absolute nightmare."

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