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Sheila Scholnick's house in Vancouver's Dunbar area. ((Amanda Stutt/CBC News))

When Winifred Hall entered her friend Sheila Scholnick's home in Vancouver's west side after she was locked out, the place looked as though there had been a burglary.

"The house had been ransacked," the elderly B.C. woman told CBC News, her voice shaking.

A Jewish altar lay overturned in the living room of the Dunbar area home, with its candles and Torah lying on the floor. Upstairs in the bedroom, dresser drawers had been emptied and underwear was scattered on the bed.

The culprits: British Columbia's Public Guardian and Trustee, a provincial agency set up to protect the financial and legal affairs of those declared mentally incapable of handling it themselves.

What is the public guardian?

Each province and territory has a public guardian.

Their job is to protect society's most vulnerable, but they are intended to be a service of last resort — only becoming involved when a person is deemed incapable and no other solution is available. The agency can make decisions on the person's behalf on a temporary basis, such as: 

  • maintaining or selling property.
  • filing tax returns.
  • paying bills.
  • receiving and depositing income.

Sometimes such agencies will gain control of more personal matters such as health care, place of residence, nutrition, hygiene and clothing.

Public guardians typically take over responsibilities on behalf of those found incapable when there are no others — such as a relative — available, capable and willing to take over the affairs.

While the public guardian is supposed to protect society's most vulnerable citizens, Hall and several others are describing it as a ruthless organization abusing the rights of the very people it claims to protect.

It was late 2007 when Hall came home to padlocks on the door of the Blenheim Street house where she had lived with the owner and her late friend, Sheila Scholnick, for the past two years. The public guardian allowed her briefly back into the building to retrieve her belongings, but that was all.

"I became like a hobo. I had nowhere to go," said Hall, who contends her property also went missing while she was locked out, including her British passport, some cash and personal files.

Hall and another friend of Scholnick, Michaelyna Burianyk, say the public guardian made Scholnick's last months of life miserable, not even allowing Scholnick back in the house to celebrate her 80th birthday. Scholnick died last fall.

"At that point, she said 'This is going to kill me.' And she said, 'This, this is so wrong,'" says Burianyk.

Agency won't explain

B.C. Public Guardian and Trustee Jay Chalke said ransacking a house would be "ridiculous and unacceptable." He wouldn't comment about the specific case but said that the agency typically does an exhaustive search of a premise when they take control of a person's financial affairs.

"You'd be amazed at the places we find wills, stock certificates, and money — hidden between the pages of a book or underneath carpets. And so we do have to conduct a thorough search," said Chalke.

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Winifred Hall, left, and Sheila Scholnick, right, lived together for several years in Scholnick's B.C. home. ((Amanda Stutt/CBC News))

"Our written policy is that our investigators leave the property at least as good as they found it."

But lawyer John Lakes, who has dealt extensively with the public guardian, says poor judgments are sometimes the result of overworked, disengaged caseworkers, as well as the result of a cumbersome bureaucracy.

"Well, unfortunately — just like a lawyer — the PGT is trained to be negative," said Lakes.

"You're dealing with a big bureaucracy. You're dealing with a turnover of people. Part of the problem is what they'll do is take sides too early."

For about six months before being turfed from the home, Hall had Scholnick's enduring power of attorney after Scholnick was admitted to a nursing home following a fall in May 2007.

With that enduring power of attorney, she had the ability to act in her friend's name even when Scholnick lost decision-making capacity, but that right was nullified by the public guardian when it assumed control of the elderly woman's finances.

In fact, it was Hall who called the public guardian, concerned that Scholnick was being swindled by a man who had begun visiting Scholnick at the nursing home. She alleges the man manipulated Scholnick into withdrawing money from her debit account to give to him.

'All-or-nothing' legislation

Hall hoped the agency would freeze Scholnick's account to keep it from happening again. But instead, the Public Guardian took control of Scholnick's affairs, emptying all but $50 out of her accounts and informing Hall that her power of attorney had been revoked. 

"It should be noted that you did not take measures to protect the finances of Mrs. Scholnick in enacting your role as power of attorney and instead sought remedy by calling our office," Public Guardian regional manager Colleen Koch wrote in a letter to Hall.

Hall began a letter writing campaign to the public guardian, the province's attorney general and the ombudsman. What she found was that current laws give the public guardian complete control over a person's legal and financial affairs.

Under the Patients Property Act, the agency has the power to enact statutory guardianship without any court process.

Laura Watts, the Centre for Elder Law's national director, says the public guardian should only step in when necessary — when there is no default power of attorney and no willing or capable family member to assume control.

She adds that abuse of powers of attorney is rampant, but often those deemed incapable of managing their affairs get caught in what Watts refers to as the "hammer of all-or-nothing" legislation.

"It's like flipping a switch — a person's either got all [of their] rights or none."

There's no way to know how many complaints like Hall's have been lodged against the public guardian since freedom of information requests were denied due to privacy concerns.

The agency publishes audited financial statements and details of how it invests clients' assets, but won't give specific details of how money is spent to family members.

Family loses out

Even when the family is still in the picture, the public guardian has been accused of unfairly taking control over the affairs of its elderly clients.

When Rose Landers was deemed incapable of managing her own affairs due to dementia and was placed in a nursing home, she lost control of her finances to the public guardian in October 2008 following a probe into allegations of financial abuse.

That probe was sparked by a relative who complained to the public guardian about the sale of one of Landers's properties. Some of the proceeds of the sale were given to family members, including her granddaughter, Marion Landers.

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Rose Landers had hoped to pass on her money to her granddaughter Marion Landers, shown here with her sons Solomon and Bilal. ((Amanda Stutt/CBC News))

Shortly after, the agency took over joint investments and emptied a bank account containing about $100,000 that the 99-year-old shared with Marion.

The two also jointly own three properties, and those are also under threat. In mid-May 2009, the public guardian informed Marion's lawyer that they are now investigating the possibility of challenging her ownership on all three shared properties.

"This is ridiculous. I don't understand how they can do this," said Marion. "They are trying to force me into a position where … one of the properties goes into foreclosure."

Marion and her two children, Solomon and Bilal, live in one of the houses and she says she couldn't even afford to rent an apartment on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside if she was forced out.

In the end, the agency told Marion Landers that they'd found no evidence of abuse. But the agency still hasn't returned the money, with the exception of about $4,000.

"It's almost like gangsterism. Their behaviour is very gangster like," said Marion.