Woodburn helped Inferrera find a board-and-care home she preferred, but a year later, her new landlord sued to evict her: The public guardian hadn't paid her rent.
But attorney Trikkia Keel, Inferrera's court-appointed lawyer, told a judge the agency had neglected her client.
"She begins to sob each time she talks about what she has been undergoing," Keel wrote.
Faced with Keel's opposition, the public guardian resigned from Inferrera's case in June 2002, replaced by a nonprofit group until her death in April.
Woodburn's eyes still well up when she recalls what her great-aunt went through.
"I wouldn't want to do that to anyone," she said, "and I wouldn't want it done to me."
A More Urgent Mission
Los Angeles County created the Public Guardian's Office in 1945 to step in when adults had no one else to care for them. Its services were to be provided free, courtesy of county taxpayers.
The agency's mission has become more urgent as the county's elderly population has expanded. Yet today, the public guardian has about 500 wards, compared with 1,200 in 1979.
Between 1998 and 2003, the agency sifted through more than 4,000 requests to take over the affairs of physically or mentally disabled adults. It accepted just 16% of them.
The public guardian's inability to meet the demand has helped fuel the rise of for-profit conservators, some of whom got their start at the agency.
Private conservators typically take on wards with sizable estates. The public guardian is often the only source of help for elderly people with little or no money.
The agency's 24-member probate staff occupies threadbare offices in the county Hall of Records, partly in a windowless, bunker-like space called "the stacks."
Until the mid-1980s, the public guardian and public administrator, the agency that manages estates of the dead, received more than $1 million a year from Los Angeles County.
The county broke them apart in 1987 to save money, folding the public guardian into the Department of Mental Health.
The probate program for the elderly and incapacitated, allocated just $200,000, dangled by a thread.
A 1988 county audit said the program desperately needed more staff, but the county's chief administrative officer, Richard Dixon, blocked the proposal, citing "severe budgetary constraints." Officials discussed killing it or having it refuse the indigent.
The county eliminated funding for the program in 1990.