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DAYTON, Texas – Preston Kirk drove through four hours of torrential rains, hoping to visit an old acquaintance living at a nondescript nursing home outside Houston.
He knew his chances of seeing the Rev. John Stout were slim.
“I just want to talk about astronauts and his triumphs and achievements,” Kirk said about the visit.
Stout, 92, was a NASA scientist and chaplain. Now, he's a ward of the state, one of about 1,300 in Texas.
Stout's visits, phone calls and mail are all tightly restricted by his state guardians. Kirk said the state has barred him from visits with Stout, even after submitting to a background check. Kirk said the state is holding Stout “incommunicado.”
“They say it's for his own protection. ‘You can't see him for his own protection,’" Kirk said. "What are you protecting him from?”
Guardianship is designed to help those who are unable to care for themselves or act in their own best interests. County judges in Texas appoint guardians and oversee the program. Usually, guardians are family members. If no family members or friends can or will do the job, then the county or state appoints somebody else.
Once people are declared wards of the state and placed under a guardian, they no longer have the right to speak for themselves, hire their own lawyers or even to decide where to live or what medications they take.
Kirk was a young reporter covering the space race for United Press International when he first met Stout. A chaplain to many astronauts, Stout had made it his mission to get Bibles to the moon.
When microfiche versions of the King James Bible made it to the lunar surface with astronaut Edgar Mitchell on Apollo 14 in 1971, Kirk broke the news about the "lunar Bibles" around the world.
In 2010, Stout was declared a ward of the state – a decision he opposed. At the time, the Presbyterian minister was active on the Internet, emailing friends and writing letters, Kirk said. Stout was placed into guardianship after he attempted to give a couple of small parcels of land he owned to his hometown of La Porte, Texas, Kirk said.
Stout was also the keeper of some lunar Bibles, now worth a small fortune. One hundred made it to the moon, and they’ve sold at auction for as much as $75,000 each. Stout had as many as 60 in his apartment, according to Kirk.
The state has since seized all of Stout’s property – customary in guardianship cases.
Stout’s visits have been restricted to only his son and daughter-in-law, according to court documents. Kirk said they live out of state and do not visit.
America Tonight also requested permission to visit Stout. The request was denied.
Cecilia Cavuto, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Aging and Disability Services, said privacy concerns prevented her from talking about individual cases. In an email, she said: “The most important job of any guardian is to protect the individuals he or she serves. As such there are times when a guardian must make difficult decisions such as restrict visitors for certain individuals.”
Guardianship is a massive intrusion into a person’s life. They lose more rights than someone who goes to prison, but it’s always based, or should be based, on medical evidence and then actual anecdotal evidence of their deficits.
probate judge in Tarrant County, Texas
In depositions, state Department of Aging and Disability Services personnel admitted Stout was not allowed to use the Internet, mail letters or use the phone, except to talk to his son and daughter-in-law. The department screens all incoming communications, according to the depositions.
“This is not the way we need to take care of our elderly citizens,” said Kirk, who has asked Texas officials to look into Stout’s case. Kirk even filed a complaint with the Department of Aging and Disability Services, saying the agency was guilty of elder abuse by cutting Stout off from the outside world. The department concluded the claim was unsubstantiated and that only one person – not Kirk – had been restricted from visiting or contacting Stout.
But America Tonight found others who have tried to visit Stout and were rejected by his state guardians.
Betty Duke, a member of Faith Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, Texas, said she and four others went to visit Stout last September. The nursing home placed a call to Stout’s guardian seeking permission but were told, “It was not in his best interest,” Duke said via email.
“It’s pretty outrageous for them not to allow access,” said Inez Russell, executive director of the Texas Guardianship Association. “I think it’s incredibly important to the quality of their life to have visitors. To have people to come and interact with them and remember together.”
Russell was quick to add that most guardians do a good job looking out for the interests of their wards.
“I think we still have a lot of work to do,” Russell added. “Texas has 254 counties. There’s not enough money in most of the county governments to have the people on staff to be court investigators and go and check to see that the guardianship is going well and that the person is being well cared for.”
When that’s not the case, the ward of the state is powerless to fight back, according to Valdez of the guardianship reform group.
“These guardianship providers strip them of every right they have: to speak, to visit, everything,” Valdez said. “You can’t defend yourself.”
Valdez makes frequent trips from her home in San Antonio to the state Capitol to push for more oversight of the guardianship process. So far, she hasn't been successful.
Dorothy Luck’s fortunes changed in 2010 when a couple of attorneys showed up at the door of her Fort Worth home. Eighty-two at the time, Luck was involved in a legal dispute with her brother-in-law’s children over a trust that was to be their inheritance.
After a medical exam concluded Luck was “partially incapacitated” and unable to make “complex financial decisions,” Tarrant County Probate Judge Steve King appointed an attorney and a guardian for her and another guardian for her estate, which court records show was worth close to $2 million at the time.
“I was not allowed to vote, to marry, to contract, to have my own money, to give gifts,” Luck told America Tonight.
Asked how she would describe guardianship, Luck didn’t hesitate: “I would describe it as tyranny. I would describe this as the Gestapo.”
King would not comment on Luck’s case because it is “still open on the books of this court,” but said he appoints guardians only as a last resort.
“Guardianship is a massive intrusion into a person’s life,” said King, whose opinions on guardianship are sought internationally. “They lose more rights than someone who goes to prison, but it’s always based, or should be based, on medical evidence and then actual anecdotal evidence of their deficits.”
Luck tried to bring her own attorney to court, but King ruled she already had a lawyer – her court-appointed attorney. That attorney settled the civil case over the trust.
“It was closed-door. I was never informed of anything,” Luck said.
Luck paid $1.3 million in 2012 to the trust and $180,000 to the attorney representing her brother-in-law’s children; she also paid $81,000 to her attorneys and guardians, according to court records.
“They have run through my money like it was a cookie jar,” said Luck, who is now on a $7,600-a-month allowance under the agreement her court-appointed attorney reached on Luck’s behalf.
Luck was adamant that she never should have been placed into guardianship. Asked if she was capable of making financial decisions, she said, “I do it every day.”
Valdez said Luck is a “prime target” for guardianship “because she's a widow, she's wealthy, she has no children. No one to come in and defend her.”
‘I don’t want to go’
In 2012, Denise Tighe began to suffer from dementia. A Palo Pinto County judge ordered her into guardianship. Tighecame to the attention of authorities when she collapsed at a local restaurant.
Police arrived one morning to take her from her home in Mineral Wells, an hour west of Fort Worth.
“She was screaming, 'I don’t want to go!,'” recalled friend and neighbor Virginia Pritchett. “She never wanted to go to a nursing home.”
Originally from Switzerland, Tighe was a retired Wall Street bank manager. Pritchett said she could have afforded round-the-clock care for the rest of her life. At the time she was placed under guardianship, court records show Tighe had more than $200,000 in the bank, a home that was paid for and benefits worth more than $2,500 a month.
Once in a nursing home, Pritchett said no visitors were allowed unless Tighe’s guardian was there to supervise.
“I was going to visit her for Christmas. I was told by one of the guardians they were going to be with their own families and there was nobody to sit with her and supervise her,” Pritchett recalled. Even photographs with Tighe were prohibited, Pritchett added.
As Tighe’s health began failing over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last year, Pritchett tried to pay a final visit.
“One of the guardians told me, 'We’re going to be closed on Monday,' so they made us wait. It was too late. She didn’t make it,” Pritchett said, fighting back tears.
A ward of the state of Texas, Tighe died alone at age 87.