Minding Her Own Business
Deborah Quasney is sane enough to take care of herself—why is someone else controlling her finances?
Published: September 11, 2012
Deborah Quasney is free. For the first time in 18 months, she can legally make decisions for herself. She can go where she wants. She can do as she pleases. But few things are the same as they were before.
Right now, she is sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for a handicapped van dispatched from ManorCare Health Services, the Towson nursing home to which she has been confined since May of 2011. Jackie Nave, ManorCare’s director of social services, is standing behind her, smoking a cigarette and yelling into her cellphone.
“Where is the van?” Nave barks over the din of midday Calvert Street traffic. “I can’t wait here all day.”
It is shortly after noon on Thursday, Aug. 23, and Quasney has just emerged from Courtroom 234 East, where Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland awarded her custody of herself. But Quasney, who until 20 minutes ago was under the guardianship of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, is not happy.
“If I don’t need a guardian, why can’t I have my property back?” she asks. “They’re deliberately making me homeless and penniless.”
When she was put into guardianship in March of last year, Quasney held title to three houses in Federal Hill. Since then two have been auctioned in foreclosure, with a third pending.
At 56 years old, Deborah Quasney presents a challenge to Baltimore’s—and the country’s—system of social services. A stroke in February of 2011 left her able to walk only a few steps. Her right arm is folded as if in a sling. She is convinced that, were she not put under guardianship, she could have managed her affairs better than the court-appointed guardian of her property, Terry K. Sullivan.
But listen to Quasney for a few minutes and it’s clear that her story is more complicated than she comprehends. In a firm, coherent voice, she speaks of old grudges and nefarious plots, but declines to share the details. Though she has no family, no friends, and no job, she claims to have income—or the possibility of it—in three vending machines she bought for $3,200 “from the back of a book for entrepreneurs.”
Quasney says she could have operated those machines, “even in a wheelchair,” and whether she’s right or not goes to the heart of what it means to be an American: We are supposed to be free to fail and try again. But the creed assumes we’re of sound mind. Who decides if we are? What if we’re not? And what happens then?
And who or what ensures that, sound-minded or not, we are not victimized by those entrusted with our care?
“I’m being held in a nursing home against my will.”
Quasney’s first words to a City Paper reporter came in a June 28 voicemail. She says she called several media outlets last fall but no one called back. I almost didn’t call back either, but after talking to her I decided to check her story. Quasney’s boyfriend, Ken Muir, explained that Quasney had suffered a stroke, after which “she had mental problems” and “never came home.”
Muir said he might have the name of her court-appointed guardian somewhere and gave the name of a lawyer, “Holloway,” and a number. “I thought she should come home,” Muir said over the phone in a slow, tentative voice not inspiring of confidence. “One woman came here and asked if I’d be able to take care of her. I said, ‘Yeah.’ They never let her out.”
Online court records revealed several foreclosures pending, a bankruptcy in progress (along with several previous filings), plus the guardianship case. The guardianship file revealed that the guardian of her property, Terry Sullivan (of Holloway and Sullivan), represents St. Agnes, the hospital that petitioned the court to commit her. A handbook from the Department of Social Services says the process can take several months. Quasney’s guardianship was granted in a week.
“Emergency procedures can be used when a person is living in conditions that pose a substantial risk of death or serious physical harm to herself or others,” according to the handbook, called “Guardianship and Its Alternatives.” Quasney’s case does not appear to have been an emergency. There was no indication in the petition that Quasney was living in a dangerous place.
The petition says Quasney is “single and has no known children” and “suffers from a cognitive disorder not otherwise specified and psychosis caused by a stroke, causing loss of higher intellectual functioning as well as the inability to take charge of and manage her property and affairs.”
Two physicians’ certificates are attached. Both say her impairment is probably temporary. The certificates are forms incorporating the statutory definition of a disabled person. “Quasney . . . does not appear capable of living in an independent environment or effectively managing her affairs,” the petition says, adding that she’d be placed in a nursing home and administered anti-psychotic medications. A lawyer assigned to represent Quasney wrote that Quasney “wants the court to appoint a guardian.”
Quasney says she never consented to the guardianship and was not told she was on psych meds for months and learned of them only by accident, when a nurse told her she forgot to give her her “depression” pill. “Come to find out I’m on more psych drugs than pills for my stroke,” Quasney says.
Under the law, “an interested person” can petition the court to put someone’s property under guardianship. It could be the person’s guardian, heirs, a governmental entity that is paying benefits to the person, or anyone “eligible to serve as guardian of the property,” in the words of the handbook.
Sullivan filed the initial petition and was named the guardian of Quasney’s property at the same moment Molly McGrath Tierney, executive director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, was appointed guardian of Quasney.
Quasney’s file also contained something unusual: an order of termination, with forms from two new doctors attesting that Quasney had made “significant improvements in speech and memory as well as mobility” and was no longer incompetent.
“I suspect she may have lapses and perhaps even hospitalizations in the future, but in general she will probably do OK and not need a guardian, not need to live in a nursing home,” Dr. Jason Black wrote.
A social worker added on another form that Quasney “has reported her intention to move to the home of a friend of eight years, Carrie Johnson,” of Cecil County, who had agreed to take her in.
By July 2012 the order had been languishing for more than a month, awaiting a hearing date. Quasney called City Paper nearly every day begging for help. “I feel like I’ve been kidnapped, you know?” she said. “You feel like being—you’re used to being free.”
The immediately striking thing about the case file was in the annual report filed by Sullivan, which concluded that Quasney owned nothing of value. Sullivan used state tax assessments to conclude that two of Quasney’s properties, at 112 W. Fort Ave. and 1416 Clarkson St., had bigger mortgages on them than they were worth. The Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation valued the third property, 1532 S. Hanover St., at $165,000. But Sullivan did not use that value.
Instead she called auctioneer Jack F. Billig, who opined that 1532 S. Hanover would likely sell for less than Quasney owed on it. Her principal balance was $45,000—a loan at 13 percent interest from a company called Mystic Investments, controlled by the law firm of Dackman and Heyman. With legal expenses piled on, by May of last year, Mystic’s payoff demand was $73,410.46.
Billig described the house in “extremely poor” condition and in need of “total renovation.” He wrote that a renovated house on the same block—bigger than 1532—had just sold for $125,000.
“Based on the size of the property, its condition and the sale of the property sold on the immediate block,” Billig wrote, “it is my opinion the property should be released to the lien holder.”
But the comparable sale Billig described was not arm’s length, according to online tax records. Renovated houses on that block actually go for more than $250,000.
“I do a lot of business with people in these [guardian] cases,” Billig says by phone on Sept. 5. “I do remember the house was horrendous, and I did tell the lawyer not to spend any money on it because there was no equity.”
About that $125,000 fully renovated house? “That was probably a fictitious thing,” Billig replies.
Attempts to reach Quasney’s bankruptcy lawyer, Ronald Wray, prove fruitless. The phone was out of service after the derecho and later reached a message saying it was not accepting calls.
Says Gordon Heyman, representing Mystic: “That’s the ongoing litigation so I really can’t comment.” He suggests I contact Sullivan.
I had done so on July 3. The conversation, verbatim:
City Paper: Hello, I’m a reporter from City Paper, I got a call from Deborah Quasney I’m following up on. How did you become the guardian of Quasney’s property?
Sullivan: She’s a demented person. Talk to the guardian of the person.
CP: I want to talk about the property.
Sullivan: She has no property.
CP: Why is that?
Sullivan: [hangs up the phone]
According to state law, the standard of care that must be met by the guardian of the property is that of a person of ordinary prudence dealing with her own property. The guardian can sell or mortgage property, even borrow money against it for repairs or renovations. Presumably getting a careful appraisal is built in to this standard.
Sullivan handled 255 property guardianships in 2011, according to online court records. In 2011 she was paid $1,156.50 to manage Deborah Quasney’s property—a bit under seven hours’ work at her $175 hourly rate. There is no indication she advocated on Quasney’s behalf either in bankruptcy court or in her foreclosure cases, which are grinding toward their conclusions. She did not return a follow-up call.
ManorCare is on a hill overlooking
West Road in Towson. It’s a low building with a small parking lot, a covered entrance, and lots of windows. On July 17 Quasney is in the hall just past the front desk, a tiny, round-faced woman with a loose-fitting blouse and a steel-gray braid. She wheels herself one-handed into a conference room (“authorized personnel only”) with a table that reaches nearly to the walls, wedges her chair in next to the other chairs crowding the space, and tells her story.
“This is my second time trying to get out of here,” she says calmly, running through a “process” she says began in October 2011. A doctor wrote a letter opining that Quasney could be trusted to handle her own affairs, she says, which was sent to her social worker. From there it was sent to the city’s lawyer, a man named Dier, according to Quasney. “They’re supposed to have 21 days to submit it,” she says. “He sat on them.”
Months passed and “they told me I would have to do it all over again.” She says she enlisted the help of the Baltimore County Department of Aging’s ombudsman (who later declined to talk to CP, citing confidentiality laws).
Quasney says she did not even know she had a court-appointed lawyer until December, which would be about nine months after she was put under guardianship: “She said she couldn’t talk to me until the end of January,” Quasney said. “This process stinks.” The lawyer, Terri Mason, did not return CP’s calls. She handled 270 guardianship cases in 2011.
Quasney’s ordeal actually began in February of 2011 when, after weeks of “crying myself to sleep” with a migraine-level headache, she says she fell out of bed one morning. “I couldn’t get up,” she says. “My boyfriend called 911.”
Quasney was taken by ambulance to Harbor Hospital. “I was responding,” she says. “My hearing was all right. I just couldn’t talk.”
She says she finally got an idea as a doctor was bending over her during an examination. “This is proof that I didn’t lose my mind,” she says. “I pointed to his pad.” When he gave it to her, she wrote the word “stroke” on it, she says. “I saw everybody smile.”
Quasney says she was sent to excellent rehabilitative care at Maryland General, then to a nursing home, Westgate’s Rock Glen, which she says was a bit of a dump. After three or four days there, she wanted to get out of bed and was told she’d have to buy a wheelchair, she says. She had no other way to get to the phone. The wait for a chair was two weeks.
Next thing she knew, an ambulance was called and they sent her to Saint Agnes. Something about suicide risk. (Quasney allows that maybe she did say something about killing herself if they wouldn’t let her go home—but she insists she was not serious.) Once there, she was diagnosed with severe depression and placed on suicide watch. Quasney claims that that mis-diagnosis followed her ever after. She told everyone she didn’t want to go back to Rock Glen; they sent her to another west-side nursing home—even more spartan—and finally to ManorCare. By this time she’d been put under guardianship. Quasney says she’s not sure just how it happened.
The petition carried to court by Sullivan mentions a May 6, 2011 trip to University of Maryland Medical Center, whose staff concluded Quasney was “not suicidal but [suffered a] brief psychotic episode resulting from increased life stressors.”
Quasney insists she never had any kind of mental breakdown and was at all times aware of her surroundings, able to distinguish reality from fantasy, and, if not exactly in a great mood, not hysterical.
At ManorCare she received mail from Sullivan with notice of auction of one of her houses. Thinking she had to try to save it, she hunted the phone book for a lawyer, hired him over the phone, got Muir to pay him $1,800, and waited in ManorCare’s lobby for the lawyer to come with the papers for her signature.
A little after 5 P.M., she was told her roommate had news. That’s when she knew the lawyer had found out she was under guardianship. The roommate told her Sullivan had called and stated flatly that Quasney had no assets. “I just started crying,” she says.
On a weekday afternoon in early August,
no one comes to the door at 112 W. Fort Ave., where Quasney’s boyfriend, Ken Muir, lives. The formstone-covered house looks lived-in. Around the corner and down Hanover Street, number 1532, another formstone job, looks forlorn. The house two doors down, number 1536, is for sale, listed at $299,900 after a $20,000 price cut.
A block away, the two-story brick rowhouse at 1416 Clarkson has a sign taped in the front window reading “lock change completed.” It sits empty. Quasney says she had that rented before her stroke.
Quasney urged me to contact a friend of hers named Lois, who she said would vouch for her sanity and good character.
“We knew each other as kids. . . then she got married and had kids. We would see each other on the street,” she said, offering neither a last name (“She used to be Lois Luke.”) nor an address but describing the path from her house and the surroundings. “Next to the green garages,” she said, “about three houses in from the corner.”
I count green garages on Clarkson and knock on a couple of likely front doors. When no one answers, I slip a note in the storm doors of each house and then walk down the alley behind Hanover to look at 1532’s back side. The rear addition is sagging amid weeds and overgrowth visible through a dilapidated wood fence. It appears pretty much as Billig described, though it’s hard to say what an investor might pay for the hulk, one of the last remaining unrehabbed shells on a gentrified block.
Back on Hanover, I ask a tall, pear-shaped man with long gray hair if he knows Quasney. “Yeah, I know her,” he drawls, after a meaningful pause. “She’s always been crazy.”
The man, who declines to give his name, says he grew up with Quasney and has known her all their lives. She owned four houses on the block at one time, he says, adding that she filled one of them with neglected dogs and piled their feces up against one wall “because she hated the neighbor.”
Quasney bought houses at tax sales and usually fell behind herself, the man says. She’d rent to bad tenants—“junkies in one case”—and spend all kinds of time fighting in court against foreclosures and housing violations.
“She’s needed help for a long time,” the man says. “We couldn’t figure out why she treated people the way she did. Those were people she’d played on the street with as kids.”
Many of the dogs in the Hanover Street house died, the man says, but when the health department came in with masks on, “there were three live ones in there. They took them to the pound and she sued to get them back—and won!”
A closer look at court records suggests the man may know of what he speaks. There are a welter of housing violations, foreclosures, lawsuits, and criminal charges spanning nearly 20 years. In 1999 Quasney sued the Baltimore City Health Department over an animal control matter, settling the case in 2001. A relative of Quasney’s evicted her from his home in Pasadena in 2000. She fought her foreclosures fiercely, in one case forcing three auctions of the same house. A federal bankruptcy judge barred her from filing more bankruptcies for six months in 2003, but she fought on, filing stays and exceptions at nearly every step of every foreclosure proceeding, often repeating the same claims before different judges. Quite a few ended up dismissed for lack of prosecution.
A day later, Rosalie Sparra calls, having found my number tucked in her storm door. She’s not Lois, but she knows Quasney. “Her mother used to live across the alley from us,” Sparra says. “They moved south. She stayed up here and bought some property. I don’t know what ever happened to the property.”
Though she says she never heard about the dog house, Sparra says she heard “through the grapevine” that Quasney had some landlording issues and maybe some trouble with the new neighbors. “To me, she’s probably looking at the old neighborhood. She grew up here. Her mother passed away, father moved . . . she was on her own.”
Sparra, who is 76, remembers Quasney as a child and says she was saddened by her condition a couple years ago. “I saw her walking around the street, you know,” she says. “She was kind of poor-looking for a young girl like that.”
Reaching the guardian of Quasney’s
person proved impossible. Calls to Social Services led glacially but inevitably to spokespeople and finally to Director McGrath Tierney, who made sure underlings e-mailed answers to general questions but cited confidentiality laws to avoid specifics.
Guardianships of the mentally incapacitated are highly sensitive, involving psychiatric and other confidential medical records, plus financial and personally identifying information that could be of interest to thieves. Quasney gave me permission to ask anyone in officialdom about anything that happened to her. The problem was that Quasney could not legally give that permission while she was under guardianship.
“Are you taking notes?”
A man in a suit demands I stop listening to Quasney recount the story she’s already told me six times. We are waiting outside Courtroom 234 at 9 A.M. on Aug. 23—more than two months since two doctors opined officially that Quasney was sane enough to go free. Quasney is sitting in a wheelchair, briefing a social worker as I stand by. I tell the man, Jeffrey Dier, that indeed I am taking notes on Quasney’s situation.
“Well it certainly shouldn’t be in the newspaper,” Dier says sternly. “There is a law.”
Having never before encountered a courtroom lobby that was closed to reporters (or any other citizens), I furrow my brow. Dier, the head lawyer for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, explains that, until and unless Quasney’s guardianship is terminated, she cannot consent to my presence within earshot, and he will not allow it. Apparently, a bubble of confidentiality follows Quasney wherever she wheels herself, no matter how public.
Quasney continues to instruct her social worker, Adriane Wiley, that she indeed has an employment history. Wiley leans forward attentively.
As is usual, Quasney has more to say. After finishing with Wiley, she gestures me to sit with her as she wheels herself into the big, low-ceilinged court room. I tell her Dier says she’s not allowed to talk to me, or vice versa. “I know,” Quasney says. “I’m breakin’ the rules.”
She then explains another rule she broke: telling the Department of Social Services that she would live with Carrie Johnson in North East. It’s a ruse, she confides. “They’re telling me I can’t go to my own home ’cause I’m gonna lose it,” Quasney says. “I have a place I can stay.”
Dier approaches again. “We talked about this,” he says, glaring at me. I shrug and move to another section of the gallery.
I hear most of two cases before Judge Holland’s clerk tells me I can’t take notes—but I can watch. I hope the other cases will help put Quasney’s in perspective. The first case—I’ll omit the name, though it is a public record—is a woman who was serving as guardian of her husband when he suffered a fall. A psychiatrist from a military base explains what happened.
The husband fell and was bleeding profusely from a cut on his head. The wife/guardian decided to take him to IHOP, as is their usual Tuesday routine. IHOP staff freaked and called emergency services, which rushed the bleeding man and his wife to the hospital. Once there, with her husband resting on a bed, the woman began a soliloquy, lamenting the couple’s lack of a sex life. “She produced a knife from her purse,” the psychiatrist told the court, “and held it to her own neck, threatening to kill herself.”
The woman was sent to a psychiatric hospital; she walked out. She thinks she can go home and garden, the psychiatrist tells the court, but “her insight and judgement are grossly impaired.”
Judge Holland speaks up: “Every elderly person who comes here sends a message: I want to go home.”
There is talk of the couple’s assets, apparently substantial, that could pay for in-home care instead of an assisted living facility. Assets are key in most cases, apparently. Judge Holland removes her from her husband’s guardianship and assigns her a state guardian.
Then Holland asks the husband if he’ll consent to a state guardian as well: “You understand that your wife can’t be your guardian.” The old man consents. How his consent matters—like Quasney, he has at this time no legal ability to consent to or dissent from anything—is not explained. “We want to keep you all healthy and happy,” Judge Holland tells him.
Next up, a man in his 50s appears healthy after recuperating from an illness. He is released from his guardianship. Then Quasney’s case is called and Dier confers with Holland, who ejects me and a half dozen other people from the room. “Traditionally this court has not observed the rules of confidentiality unless there is an objection from the parties,” she says.
There were 977 active guardianship cases statewide in fiscal 2012, according to figures released by the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. That year, seven cases were closed statewide.
The program is overseen by the Adult Public Guardianship Review Board, which is tasked with reviewing guardianship cases held by any public agency at least twice a year. The boards make recommendations to the court to continue, modify, or terminate a guardianship. I did not notice anything from such a board in Quasney’s court file.
Quasney is crying when she comes out 45 minutes later. She is handed papers to sign, terminating the guardianship of her person. But, she says, she was now told that she has to file a separate motion to terminate the guardianship of her property. “I thought that once you’re out of guardianship, you’re out of guardianship in all things,” Quasney wails. “They want me to lose all three properties. This is a mess.”
Jackie Nave of ManorCare is trying to get Quasney to move toward the elevators. “He’s putting it in the paper,” Quasney says, gesturing toward me.
“Good. Congratulations,” Nave snaps. “We need to get out of here.”
An hour and a half later
the sun is beating down on Quasney’s face as she waits for the van outside the courthouse. Nave has run across the street and brought back a couple of waters while in front of us a DIRECTV van driver goes berserk and throws his drink at a yellow cab, which has a fare.
“It’s been a lie from the beginning,” Quasney says, claiming her lawyer, Terri Mason, did hardly anything for her. She says her first social worker quit her case without leaving any notes. “He was supposed to go out and see the property I was gonna go to,” Quasney says. “He said to me, on the phone, ‘It’s too far.’”
Nave stands nearby, smoking, thumbing her phone.
“I’m gonna get them,” Quasney says. “Every fuckin’ one of ’em. You kept me locked up for over a year! Paybacks are hell.
“They put something down on paper, it sticks. ‘Oh, you got a mental problem, you have a mood problem.’ Everybody in the United States has a mood problem!”
Quasney says Dier, the social services lawyer, “said more negative stuff than good stuff,” about her in the hearing. “I was the one who talked myself,” she says. “I was talking good. I was proud of myself that it came out so good.”
Finally, at 2 P.M., the van pulls over as Nave flags it down. “Thank God you’re here,” she tells the driver as he jostles the steel wheelchair lift into position.
As she is loaded into the van it is not clear where Quasney is going.
Carrie M. Johnson’s house
in North East is a modular home: one story, no basement, and a porch decorated with some fishing poles, a gas grill, and a car battery in a neighborhood of houses just like it. There is no wheelchair ramp.
This is where Quasney told the state she’d be going.
“She has my phone number,” Johnson says on Aug. 31. “If she will call me, I’m willing to go down there and bring her here, help her out until she gets on her feet.”
Johnson says she hadn’t heard from Quasney in at least a month when she called at about 3:30 P.M. on Aug. 29 asking for cab fare for the 47-mile trip to the house. Johnson had no money. “We’re a one-car family,” she says. “When my husband goes to work, I need to wait until he comes back.”
Johnson says she told Quasney to sit tight for a few hours: “She didn’t want to hear that.”
Apparently things went sideways then. On Aug. 30 Quasney called me to say she’d been locked in a mental ward at GBMC. “I’m doped up so bad,” she cried, “my whole body hurts.”
Quasney said she had called a cab the day before and tried to get out of ManorCare. When the cabbie asked how she’d pay, she told him Muir would pay when she got home, but he didn’t answer the phone. She got another cab, failed again and then was waiting for a final rescuer—Johnson, apparently—when the ManorCare people called the police.
“They put me in handcuffs,” Quasney sobbed. “I told them not to move my arm.”
Johnson says she tried to call Quasney back, but did not know where she was: “All ManorCare wanted to tell me was that she had been discharged and was no longer on the premises.”
Inviting me in, Johnson apologizes for her cluttered living room, furnished with a couch, a chair, and, at the far end, a bed where a boy is turned on his side, sneakers still on his feet. Constance Johnson, Carrie’s mother-in-law, sits on the bed in front of him. She is Quasney’s former roommate at ManorCare.
“It would have been a year in August, this month, so we’ve really known each other for a year,” Constance says. “She’s really got a story to tell. Them giving her medicine that she wasn’t supposed to be taking. She would just pretend to take it.
“How would you feel,” Constance Johnson asks, “if it happened to you?”
Carrie Johnson became Quasney’s co-conspirator, she says, when she went to get Constance. “I told the social workers one thing,” Johnson says, “And I’m about to tell you the truth: It was just to get her out of there.
“I think nursing homes are a racket. I saw someone in distress. I thought I could be helpful,” Carrie Johnson says. “I’ve done home health care before, and I thought she would qualify for it, with her disability, which she should qualify for with her heart attack or whatever.” (The Social Security Administration rejected Quasney’s application for disability insurance, according to the court file).
Carrie says she’s willing to do what she can to help Quasney, despite having four disabled children to care for. “I’ve always got my cellphone. But I need to be able to plan ahead of time,” she says, nodding at the sleeping boy. “He’s 14 years old but he has the mind of a 6-year-old.”
I tell the Johnsons about Quasney’s background and ask Carrie what she thinks I should write.
“I don’t know how I would present it,” Carrie says, “because I don’t know Deborah as well as other people might. I don’t know how well she can spin a story. But when she saw me taking mom out of there, she went hysterical. She just lost it.”
Constance: “They didn’t do nothing for me in there either. They took away all of my meds and tried all new stuff.”
Carrie: “She has a tendency to get a little boisterous.”
Constance: “When she sets off screaming and crying, they think she needs meds. . . she couldn’t even have an attorney of her own. She said, ‘It’s like I’m in prison.’”
“Wait a minute,” Carrie says. “In prison you are allowed to have your own lawyer.”
Carrie Johnson dials GBMC’s psych ward. The person on the other end of the phone tells her that Quasney has been discharged. They offer no information about where she has gone.
“I’d like to know how she’s doing,” says Johnson, “if I can help her in any way.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.