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Alameda County Grand Jury Report Cites Probate Conservatorship Cries Out for Reform

Alameda County needs a radical transformation in the way legal defense services are provided, said Venus Gist, a ‘Shout Out Justice’ advocate. “As things now stand, these services almost always result in a conservatorship being granted. There are no trials. No appeals. Less restrictive alternatives are not seriously explored,” she went on.

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Probate Advocate Venus Gist says, “Alameda County needs a radical transformation in the way legal defense services are provided.”
Probate Advocate Venus Gist says, “Alameda County needs a radical transformation in the way legal defense services are provided.”

By Tanya Dennis

Last week, the Alameda County Grand Jury released its final report on the Alameda County Probate Court and found numerous deficiencies that have been criticized by probate reform groups for decades.

The Grand Jury found that:

  • Probate Court staff is severely overworked and understaffed;
  • The Public Defender’s office has no monitoring system to ascertain the service it renders to beneficiaries to assure their needs are addressed;
  • Guardians are not provided formal training;
  • There is no formal grievance process;
  • Beneficiaries who are poor do not get the same level of service as those with means
  • Involuntary conservatorship can drain estates quickly because of lack of oversight.

The Grand Jury report has given hope to probate reform advocates, who have been protesting these deficiencies for years with little or no success.

Spectrum Institute has been calling for Probate Court reform for eight years, especially in regard to beneficiaries with disabilities.

“The report of the Grand Jury sends a signal to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors that the status quo of unnecessary and overreaching conservatorships must end,” said Spectrum Institute Director Tom Coleman. “In terms of the responsibility to stop conservatorship abuses, the buck stops with the Board of Supervisors.’

Coleman suggested that the board should look to Nevada for solutions. “It should adopt a new system for providing legal defense services to seniors and people with disabilities who are targeted by these proceedings,” he said.

Recommendations from the Grand Jury are that the Alameda County Defender’s office transfer the responsibility of conservatorship to a separate agency with a contract specifying standards be met in order to receive funding from the County.

The Grand Jury is also advocating for a “Zealous Advocate,” a legal representative who assures that the desires of the conservatee are addressed.

Conserved involuntarily, Katherine Carter had to be ‘kidnapped’ from a long-term care facility by her daughter, Venus Gist, a ‘Shout Out Justice’ advocate.

Carter had been neglected to the degree that the facility had arranged hospice care. Risking arrest and prosecution, Gist “illegally” removed her mother from the facility. Katherine Carter lived an additional four years after being given 3 to 6 months to live.

“As both an advocate and a victim of the probate court, I think it’s exceptional that the Grand Jury of Alameda County has finally filed a report addressing the issues of conservatorship within the Public Guardian’s Office,” Gist said. “Abusive conservatorships are occurring nationwide and seldom are public servants such as judges, attorneys, conservators, fiduciaries, etc. held accountable and convicted of criminal acts committed towards their clients.…. it’s rarely talked about, and families and caregivers are mostly blamed.”

Alameda County needs a radical transformation in the way legal defense services are provided., Gist said. “As things now stand, these services almost always result in a conservatorship being granted. There are no trials. No appeals. Less restrictive alternatives are not seriously explored,” she went on.

She agrees with Coleman that the board should hire an outside firm to audit the public defender and “look seriously at adopting the Nevada model for legal defense services in Alameda County.”

To prevent abuses such as the Carter family encountered, the Grand Jury recommends that a neutral third-party entity be selected to conduct annual reviews of conservatorships to assess attorney compliance and determine compliance with probate rules.

The Grand Jury also recommended that attorneys take ongoing educational training in probate conservatorship and establish annual performance evaluations. They also recommend that a licensed health professional evaluate each client.

Although encouraged by the Grand Jury report, Gist feels it did not go far enough and wishes they had interviewed citizens who have been violated. Gist says, “If they are investigating, conduct it thoroughly, it requires the whole truth.”

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Activism

Respect for Marriage Act Passes in U.S. House with Help from Bay Area Representatives

California District 13 Rep. Barbara Lee, who voted for the bill, also stated it was “a key step forward in House Democrats’ fight against the right-wing assault on freedom.”  Representative Eric Swalwell of District 15, which includes cities of Dublin, San Ramon, Livermore and Hayward simply tweeted, “Kevin McCarthy and the majority of @HouseGop just voted against same-sex marriage. As backwards as they are, we are not going backwards with them.”

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Tweet from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Twitter photo.
Tweet from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Twitter photo.

By Sarah Clemens, Oakland Post Intern

The House passed the Respect for Marriage Act on July 19, 2022. The bill, which was originally introduced in 2009, would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and recognize same-sex marriage on a federal level.

The reintroduction of this bill comes not long after Justice Clarence Thomas’ called for Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared the right for same-sex marriage in every state, to be overturned. Thomas declared Obergefell v. Hodges, along with other landmark rulings, to be “demonstrably erroneous decisions.”

While all of the House Democrats voted for the bill, it also garnered some bipartisan support, with 47 Republicans voting in the affirmative as well. Notably, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whose anti-gay marriage statements were immortalized in 2018 Best Picture nominee “Vice,” voted in favor of the bill.

Cheney also denounced her previous statements in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, stating, “freedom means freedom for everybody.” However, the Republican Party’s top two representatives, Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, voted against it.

While the House vote is a big victory for supporters of the Respect for Marriage Act, it is still not a law. Whether it will be approved by the Senate is unclear. Chuck Schumer of New York, Democrat and Senate majority leader, stated he wanted “to bring this bill to the floor, and we’re working to get the necessary Senate Republican support to ensure it would pass.” That mentioned Republican support would be a minimum of 10 affirmative Republican votes.

Democrat support remains strong, with many citing potential codifying of the bill as a counterattack in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose congressional district lies within San Francisco, spoke about the recent ruling on the House floor and stood behind the bill, saying, “as radical Justices and right-wing politicians continue their assault on our basic rights, Democrats believe that the government has no place between you and the person you love.”

California District 13 Rep. Barbara Lee, who voted for the bill, also stated it was “a key step forward in House Democrats’ fight against the right-wing assault on freedom.”  Representative Eric Swalwell of District 15, which includes cities of Dublin, San Ramon, Livermore and Hayward simply tweeted, “Kevin McCarthy and the majority of @HouseGop just voted against same-sex marriage. As backwards as they are, we are not going backwards with them.”

While according to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, President Joe Biden has been urging the Senate to send the bill to him soon, the process has instead been delayed.

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who became the first openly gay person to be elected to the Senate in 2012, told NPR that “we don’t want to bring it to the floor until we know that we can pass the legislation.”

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has stated that he’d “delay announcing anything on that issue until we see what the majority leader wants to put on the floor.”

As Democrats attempt to gain support from across the aisle, and Republicans make few statements on the bill publicly, the future remains unclear.

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Activism

William Wells Brown, Personifying the American Dream

William Wells Brown personified the American dream. He’d become an internationally renowned antislavery activist and writer who resided in and traveled widely across the northern United States and the British Isles. He penned a series of remarkable books including the first Black novel, the first printed Black play, the first Black travelogue, and the first Black panorama displayed in Britain.

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William Wells Brown. Wikipedia.org photo.
William Wells Brown. Wikipedia.org photo.

By Tamara Shiloh

The minstrel shows of the early 19th century are believed by some to be the roots of Black theatre. However, they were written, acted, and performed by whites for white audiences. The first known play by a Black American was James Brown’s “King Shotaway” (1823), but the first Black play published was William Wells Brown’s (ca. 1814–1884) “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.”

While “Escape” was published in 1858, it was not officially produced until 1971 at Emerson College. It was one of the earliest extant pieces of African American dramatic literature.

Brown, whose mother was a slave, was born on a plantation outside Lexington, Ky. He would become a Black antislavery lecturer, a groundbreaking novelist, playwright, and historian.

According to the New Bedford Historical Society (NBHS), he is “widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres, and widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.”

Bought and sold several times before age 20, Brown spent his childhood and much of his young adult life as a slave in St. Louis, Mo. There he was hired out to work on the Missouri River which, at that time, served as a major thoroughfare for the slave trade. This location allowed him several chances to escape. It was New Year’s Day in 1834 that he slipped away from a steamboat and finally became successful.

Brown landed in Cleveland, Ohio, where he began educating himself and reading antislavery newspapers. He later worked as a steam boatsman on Lake Erie and conductor for the Underground Railroad. On arrival at Cleveland, he’d taken shelter with Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown, a white Quaker family and later adopted their names.

By 1843, Brown had become a regular on the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society lecturing circuit. He was also deeply committed to speaking out on women’s rights and temperance laws (laws banning the sale of spirits in less than 15-gallon quantities). It was Brown’s speaking that led many historians and scholars to provide the trajectory for his later career as a writer. By 1845, he’d published “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.”

Brown personified the American dream. He’d become an internationally renowned antislavery activist and writer who resided in and traveled widely across the northern United States and the British Isles. He penned a series of remarkable books including the first Black novel, the first printed Black play, the first Black travelogue, and the first Black panorama displayed in Britain.

Focusing on his own historical works, Brown penned two histories of the Black race, a history on Blacks and whites in the South, and a rare military history of Blacks in the Civil War. He eventually settled in Boston, where he practiced medicine until his death from cancer in 1884.

Learn more about Brown’s compelling story through his classic American slave narrative: “The Narrative of William W. Brown a Fugitive Slave.”

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Activism

COMMENTARY: The Power of the Vote

Voting has not always been a given, in fact, just the opposite has been the practice in society for the marginalized. In the midst of so much media coverage that shows how some national lawmakers want to suppress the voting strengths of Blacks, Latinos and the formerly incarcerated, we must seize this moment to exercise our citizen right to vote.

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We as a people constantly need to work in unison to erect positivity that increases the day-to-day living challenges for the betterment of all; not just for a few.
We as a people constantly need to work in unison to erect positivity that increases the day-to-day living challenges for the betterment of all; not just for a few.

By Richard Johnson

The Formally Incarcerated Giving Back (FIGB) org. is launching a voter drive to protect and encourage democratic participation while seeking educational, economic as well as social opportunities to reunite families.

Our goal is to focus on potential voters who have been overlooked in the voting process as a class due to ultra-restrictive policy measures meant to discourage voter turnout.

Recently laws that allow those with criminal records to actively participate in the voting process on all levels have changed. This would give those underserved citizens a voice in what happens in their communities.

Voting has not always been a given, in fact, just the opposite has been the practice in society for the marginalized. In the midst of so much media coverage that shows how some national lawmakers want to suppress the voting strengths of Blacks, Latinos and the formerly incarcerated, we must seize this moment to exercise our citizen right to vote.

We can help ourselves and make changes by voting with our full strength.

We of the Formally Incarcerated Giving Back (FIGB) will be canvassing throughout our communities to register this obscure neglected class of prison returnees and their families. We will also join with other organizations, churches and the Post News Group, along with other media to spread the message of our mission. FIGB will also help contact and sign all other unregistered voters to impact change at the polls. We will collaborate with other groups, voting blocks, and entities to increase awareness while raising the turnout at the polls. We are asking all churches, institutions, and social clubs to join this endeavor by engaging with FIGB.

During the next two months we will regularly publish the results of our coordinated efforts to put boots on the ground in this column.

Change is an inevitable phenomenon; however, the right changes are not. We as a people constantly need to work in unison to erect positivity that increases the day-to-day living challenges for the betterment of all; not just for a few. Let’s be clear, nothing should be taken for granted. Just as one is seated, so can one be unseated. Let the voices of the underserved be heard loud and clear. The policy of exclusion must be replaced with inclusion.

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