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This year, January 31 was the last straw for Helen Henson Jr. That day her namesake- her 90-year-old mother Helen Henson Sr. was admitted to Little Company of Mary's emergency room in Torrance with a fat, bloody lip and a large bruise on her leg. Employees at the Royalwood nursing home, also in Torrance, told her the injuries were a reaction to antibiotics given to her mother for a bladder infection.
"But I don't understand," said the younger Henson, "how you can have a big fat, swollen bloody lip and an unexplained bruise on your leg...I want to know to this day, what type of antibiotic would cause that. [I believe] either my mother was socked in her mouth or she was dropped."
Henson Jr. said she has been trying to get her mother back home with her since 2003 after a mental health court decided that the elderly woman needed to be under the guidance of a public conservator. During that time her father had passed and mother went into a deep depression, she said. Often, she would have to take Henson Sr. to emergency for episodes stemming from her mental condition.
"From there (emergency room) they observed her and that's when all the confusion started. It happened October 28, 2003. There was an LPS (Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act) hearing that I attended," Henson Jr. explained.
"During that hearing, the doctor was allowed to say under oath that I said I could no longer take care of my mother. I never said that. In that court building, I raised my hand. The bailiff told me to be quiet. It's one of the best-kept secrets and one of the most terrible courts. When I was sitting in the courtroom, I did not know what the hearing was about. [After looking into it] I found that LPS is to put people on drugs. It's to allow psychiatrists to put people on drugs... "
Actually, LPS provides that only certain individuals, chiefly law enforcement officials, can place a person into involuntary hospitalization to initiate a 72-hour evaluation period, specifically excluding family or friends. Its two requirements for involuntary hospitalization are that the individual has a mental disorder and that as a result of that disorder the individual is a danger to self or gravely disabled.
"Gravely disabled is defined as an inability to take care of one's basic needs, such as food, clothing, or shelter," UC Berkley Institute of Government Studies scholar Fred Martin reported in 2000.
However, he said, the law does not define mental disorder nor does it define what constitutes danger. The patient-psychotic or not- goes before a judge or court-appointed hearing officer, who rules within the narrow confines of the law.
"After that doctor made that false statement, my mother was thrown into the hands of the Los Angeles Public Guardian conservators," said Henson Jr.
"My mother was at Colonial Nursing Home in Long Beach first. At that time she wasn't being given so many different drugs. She could walk on her own and she could talk. From there she went to Newport Beach, where I started noticing her change she was babbling a lot. From Newport she went to Clear View in Gardena. From Clear View she went to Royalwood.
Henson said she had been continuously reporting what she saw to the Public Guardian via phone, email, fax and writing but was consistently ignored. In fact, she said the only reason she felt anyone called her on January 31 was because they could not get in touch with her mother's guardian.
"If I knew what would happen to my mother four years later, believe me she could have walked on the ceiling in my house and it would have been okay with me."
Meanwhile Royalwood employees have neither confirmed nor denied any wrongdoing. The privacy rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits them, they said, of discussing any individual patient's case.
However, Royalwood spokesperson Melody Chatelle said she "absolutely does not believe any abuse occurred" at the facility.
"We take a lot of pride in the care we give our patients," she said.
"Anybody who believes that abuse has occurred is bound to report it to the Department of Health... and we welcome that."
For her part, Henson Jr. said she did report the bloody lip incident.
"When I got there, I see blood on the pillow, I see my mother in a frantic state," she recalled.
"I called the police. Two officers from the Torrance Police Department were there. They saw it. The police took a report. They gave it to Detective Steve Fletcher."
Fletcher was not available for comment at press time.
"[Fletcher] told me to call Adult Protective Services because it seemed like a case of elder abuse," Henson continued.
Elder abuse is defined as a single or repeated act (or lack of proper action) by a responsible individual, which causes harm or distress to an older person. It can take on many different forms, including physical, financial, and mental and neglect. Every year an estimated 2.1 million older Americans are victims of physical, psychological, or other forms of abuse and neglect, according to the American Psychological Association.
For every case of elder abuse and neglect reported to authorities, experts estimate that there may be as many as 5 cases not reported, they said. Research suggests elders who have been abused tend to die earlier than those who are not abused, even in the absence of chronic conditions or life threatening disease.
"There was no report accepted from APS so the way I put this together is that Department of Mental Health and the Public Conservators wash each other's hands. They're tied in together. They didn't take a report, even though the information was given to them."
APS was also not available for comment at press time.
Patricia, a representative of the Los Angeles County Public Guardian who declined to give her last name, said that there are a variety of reasons someone could be placed under conservatorship despite the fact that there are relatives willing to care for him or her.
"It could be that the relative doesn't understand the person's needs. It could be determined that the relative was found to not have a very good relationship with the person... when the court takes over, there's a reason," she said.
But Henson Jr. maintains she wants her mother back. She is already in the process, she said, of filing a lawsuit against the Public Guardian.
"They're like little gods. They're untouchable, that's their attitude... 'You don't tell me, I tell you. I ignore you as a family member, you don't tell us what to do.' This has damaged the life of my mother. Before January 31 she's never been frantic. She seems scared of anything that's happening to her now," said Henson Jr.