I-Team Special Report: Broken System?

SCOTT COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - You've raised your children, now you're caring for your aging parents. It's a situation many find themselves in.

Now, imagine caring for 250 people stretched from one side of your home county to the other.

That's how many people the Scott County Public Administrator is responsible for right now; and one of them is the focus of this I-Team special report.

A judge placed 85-year-old Pauline Williams of Sikeston, Mo. into the care of the county Public Administrator 10 months ago.

One of her daughters came to us several weeks ago with a question—how can her elderly mom be better off in that guardianship, when the moves left her tens of thousands of dollars in debt?

"My mother and dad took great pride in paying their bills," Teala Mainzer said of her parents, Ray and Pauline Williams.

But Pauline Williams doesn't handle her own bills anymore. Instead, all her finances and all decisions about her care are handled by her guardian, Scott County Public Administrator Pam Dirnberger.

Her nursing home bill alone is hard to fathom.

"I believe it's about $31,000 as of the end of January. Why would her situation be better now, in guardianship, with all these bills stacking up and not being paid and being left unpaid?

Studies have found Missouri's public administrator caseloads to be "dangerously high" with little to no oversight.

So we dug a little deeper and money is just the beginning of the challenges.

Is Pauline Williams' case the exception?

No, it's more like the rule.

We also found out just how tough it is to care for those 250 people, and why Pauline Williams' daughter questions more than just her bills.

From her small office in Benton, Pam Dirnberger and her two staff members handle the affairs of dozens of men and women across Scott County.

"It gets very busy because we are understaffed," Dirnberger said.

State statute recommends one worker to every 50 wards. but it's not required and here it's not an option.

"We really should have at least one other person in here," she said.

But understaffed or not, state law still requires Dirnberger to handle all her ward's care and custody issues.

"We get behind and you have to scramble to catch up," she said.

And, like Pauline Williams, many wards have unpaid bills. Dirnberger explains the majority of their often meager incomes must go to the nursing home if they're in one. Williams went from this modest home in Sikeston she owned, to a room a few miles away she currently cannot afford.

"It's unfortunate because I pay my bills and it bothers me when we can't pay somebody else's bills. But sometimes you have no choice," Dirnberger said.

A public administrator must also physically check on a ward, but only once a year. A fact that came as a shock to Teala Mainzer.

"She gets to make all my mother's decisions and she has to see her only once a year," Mainzer said.

Dirnberger admits, getting to see all her wards face to face is a challenge.

"I try to see the ones that are closer to me more often than that," she said.

The PA is also tasked with keeping up a ward's property, or selling it to help pay some of those expenses. After 10 months, Williams' home sits empty and damaged.

"It's not as if my mother was put in guardianship. I feel like we've been put in guardianship," Mainzer said.

She also questions the toll guardianship is taking on her elderly mother and their entire family. She points to the change in her mother's appearance and actions in the 10 months she's been in Dirnberger's care.

She also points to a series of emails exchanges.

When asked about visits, Dirnberger told them they could have "only supervised visits until I know there's no hidden agenda." Later she wrote, "For your mothers sake all of you need to quit acting like a bunch of spoiled little kids."

"I'm being reprimanded by a guardian that doesn't seem to care about my mother," Mainzer said.

"It was because I was getting very frustrated with this particular family," Dirnberger explained. "I do apologize. I shouldn't have said that."

Teala Mainzer's biggest concern, one Pam Dirnberger is not in a position to answer, why is her mother being cared for by a guardian stretched so thin when she has three adult daughters willing to take her in?

"I believe that if she were with her family, if she were in the home with her daughters, with care of loved ones, with family around, that she would be better," she said.

It's important to note there is division among Pauline Williams' family. With three daughters wanting custody, while a fourth daughter and Williams' brother support the public administrator.

But if, as one study points out, guardianships can actually alienate families and hurt the person placed in one, where do you turn?

We are reaching out to our state office holders for that answer. Look for more in the weeks to come.

Copyright 2015 KFVS. All rights reserved.