Pearl Inferrera had $70 to her name when she arrived at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center. At 83, she had fallen in her apartment and broken her wrist. Doctors diagnosed her with dementia and chronic anemia.

Inferrera's meager circumstances and failing health made her the archetypal client for the Public Guardian's Office, Los Angeles County's conservator of last resort.

But Inferrera's treatment over four years as a county ward shows the agency's painful decline.

The public guardian once embodied a commitment to protect elderly men and women no longer able to care for themselves. It now represents something quite different: a broken promise to these fragile adults.

Until September, when the Board of Supervisors allotted $1.1 million to expand the agency's staff, the nation's largest county had not spent a penny of its own money on its program for the elderly since 1990.

It was the only such program in Southern California — and one of the few in the state — abandoned in this manner by elected officials.

The agency now rejects more than four of five aged citizens referred for help. Months or even years have passed before it acts — at least 660 seniors have died since 1998 waiting for the public guardian to decide whether to assist them.

For the comparatively few whose cases are accepted, the office's swamped staff has trouble meeting their basic needs. Seniors have had to do without eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures. One elderly woman lost much of her small estate when the agency allowed her house to slip into foreclosure.

Three years ago, the public guardian had a waiting list of more than 300 senior citizens, each one in or near a crisis.

It is down to 15 now — but not because more people are being served.

After The Times requested information about the backlog, the agency adopted a new policy: It started rejecting people faster.

"Can we meet the need?" said Deputy Director Christopher Fierro, the office's top administrator. "No."

Inferrera was a divorcee who lived alone in a small Burbank apartment complex before she was hospitalized.

The public guardian asked a Los Angeles County Probate Court for authority over her affairs in August 1998, saying alcoholism and increasing confusion had left her unable to return to independent living.

As Inferrera's conservator, the agency was responsible for managing her money and seeing to her daily needs.

Its performance fell short.

Although a doctor concluded that she did not need to live in a locked nursing home, court records show, the public guardian obtained court authority to put her in one anyway. The agency then moved her to a Pasadena facility where many of the patients had serious mental illnesses.

One attacked Inferrera, battering her head with a cane.

Her injuries were minor, but the incident left her traumatized, said Lorraine Woodburn, her grand-niece.