An 88-year-old Yucaipa widow won her independence from the Inland Empire's largest for-profit conservatorship firm Thursday when a San Bernardino County probate judge granted her request and appointed her step-grandson as her caretaker.
Helen Jones, a frugal former assembly-line worker who had amassed a $560,000 nest egg, had been seeking the removal of the firm, Conservatorship and Resources for the Elderly Inc., for the last two years after it assumed legal control of her life and finances.
Melodie Scott, head of the firm, submitted a written resignation through her lawyer to Superior Court Judge Frank Gafkowski before he named the new conservator.
"Look at that! She resigns!" Jones said of Scott while leaving Gafkowski's courtroom, triumphantly holding up a copy of the document.
Scott was not in court and did not return a call seeking comment.
Jones was featured in a Times series on California's for-profit conservators. The investigation, based on a review of more than 2,400 cases, described a largely unregulated system in which for-profit conservators swiftly take control of the lives of the aged and disabled, often without their knowledge.
Jones became ensnared in the system in December 2002, after a casual acquaintance thought she could use some help with household chores and called Scott's firm for assistance.
At the time, Jones lived alone, was nearly deaf and had trouble walking long distances because of damage from a rare neurological disease. She got around in a wheelchair or used a walker. Her home had become cluttered, and she had trouble getting to the grocery store.
Since she never had children and had outlived everyone in her family, there were no relatives nearby to help care for her. She had married in her 50s to an older man, but she had lost touch with his relatives in the 1980s after his death.
But she remained keen of mind and was financially secure, given all the money she had squirreled away after a lifetime of factory and office jobs. By the time Scott took control of her finances, she had more than $560,000 in her bank accounts.
Jones said Scott became her conservator after an employee from Conservatorship and Resources for the Elderly appeared at her home and said she was with CARE, referring to the firm by its acronym.
The employee asked her to sign a document.
Jones said she signed the document without reading it, assuming the woman worked for California Alternate Rates for Energy, a Southern California Edison program that gives seniors a break on utility bills.
Instead, the one-paragraph form said that Jones wanted Scott to be her conservator, or legal guardian.
Scott attached the form to a court petition and asked a judge in San Bernardino probate court to give her immediate emergency powers as Jones' conservator. Her request was granted.
It was months before Jones realized that Scott had taken over her bank accounts, she said. When she understood what had happened, she sought help from pro-bono lawyers at Inland Counties Legal Services.
Bob Roddick, the firm's managing attorney, appeared in court in March 2004 and asked a judge to appoint a lawyer specializing in conservatorship matters to help Jones remove Scott's firm and gain control of her life.
At the time, Jones was concerned because Scott's firm was spending her money on household appliances and other services she never asked for.
Roddick said there was no doubt in his mind that Jones had the capacity to make her own decisions and expected her to be released from conservatorship quickly.
But the process of ending a conservatorship, once it has been established, is difficult and lengthy.
Scott fought Jones' efforts, insisting that the elderly woman was incapable of managing her own affairs.
In court documents, she said Jones was a schizophrenic and was "near death" when Scott took over her life.
Jones disputed Scott's claims. She said she was not near death when Scott became her conservator and had never been diagnosed with any mental illness. Neighbors, friends and relatives corroborated her account.
"I guess I was naive," Roddick said Thursday outside court, about his assumption that ending Scott's conservatorship would be simple.
Roddick said he was relieved that Scott was out of the picture, but added: "It took too much time, too much money."
Jones reconnected with her husband's relatives last year, when a Times reporter working on the series contacted them. They were stunned to learn of her circumstances and vowed to help.
Soon, Mike Tomazin, her 52-year-old step-grandson, offered to serve as her conservator. He runs a family trust and his own horse ranch in Madera that provides therapy for children suffering from autism or Asperger's syndrome.
Judge Gafkowski appointed Tomazin temporary conservator Thursday pending an April hearing on his request for a permanent appointment.
Still unresolved is the issue of Scott's fees and the money she has spent from Jones' accounts since January 2004. To date, Scott has spent more than $200,000 of Jones' assets.
Jones has filed an objection to the latest financial report. Gafkowski set a June hearing.
"It cost me," Jones said, "but I got rid of them."