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Ex-Students Aid Teacher, Now 90

21 May 2007

By Tracy Breton

SOUTH KINGSTOWN - If you are lucky, you will have one teacher who changes your life - someone who opens your eyes to new possibilities, pushes you out of your comfort zone and imparts lessons that stick with you well beyond the classroom. If you're lucky, that teacher will become a mentor and friend, someone you'll talk to and seek advice from long after you graduate.

For many students who attended the University of Rhode Island from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, that teacher was Winifred A. Caldwell, a professor of speech communications who upon retirement, volunteered for more than a dozen years as an adviser to underclassmen.

Professor Caldwell is now 90. She still lives in an old house on the perimeter of the Kingston campus. Born and raised in England, she was married for 47 years to Roderick Caldwell, a URI mathematics professor. They never had children. Their students were their family. The couple shared Thanksgiving and Christmas with their students, attended their students' weddings and when their students got master's or doctorate degrees at other institutions, they were invited to those graduations. When Roderick Caldwell died in 1997, his wife chose one of her former students, Michael S. Tick - now chairman of the theater department at Louisiana State University - to deliver the eulogy.

Many of Professor Caldwell's students are in their 50s now but they still telephone her several times a week and travel to Rhode Island to visit her, sometimes with their spouses and children in tow.

Last Thursday, five of them returned to Rhode Island - some by plane, others by car - to tell a judge that their beloved professor who now suffers from severe dementia, is also a victim of caregiver neglect.

In letters filed with the court, they are offering to take over as their professor's guardians even though they live out-of-state. They say they are heartbroken over what has befallen Winifred Caldwell. They say when they visit her, they have found her in tattered and soiled clothing, her hygiene unkempt, and living in conditions so squalid that they have left her house weeping.

Based on their letters, Probate Judge Stephen R. White has appointed a special master to conduct an investigation and recommend whether the guardian he appointed to watch out for Caldwell in January 2005 - Wakefield lawyer Cherrie R. Perkins - should be removed.

"This is like A Tale of Two Cities," White told those assembled before him at Thursday's hearing. "One person sees trash, one sees clutter." The true situation is very unclear.

"My perception is Miss Perkins tried to do the best job she has been able to do," said White, after listening to two hours of testimony. But based on the complaints he's received from Caldwell's former students and a former caretaker - as well as testimony he heard about the professor's rapidly declining mental state and the need for more skilled in-home caregivers - White said "the plan going forward" needs to be addressed.

A neatly dressed Winifred Caldwell was brought to the hearing by her former students, against her guardian's wishes, after they took her out to lunch. She didn't testify but leaned forward in her seat and smiled each time one of them stood to address the court.

The special master, North Kingstown lawyer George Bauerle III, is to file his report by June 14. White said he'd decide the issue of guardianship on June 21.

At that hearing, White said, he will also take up the matter of Caldwell's finances. Caldwell's grandnephew - her only living relative in the United States - has power of attorney for her. But the nephew, Gareth Bestor, a software engineer who lives in Oregon, rarely sees her and has found bill paying cumbersome because he lives so far away.Bauerle told the court Thursday that based on his preliminary investigation, Caldwell is happy living at home and shows no signs of abuse. He said he went to her house several days ago. It was very cluttered and "filled with knickknacks everywhere, books everywhere," but wasn't dirty, he said, and the refrigerator was full. But he told Judge White that he wanted to talk more with the professor's former students and others who have visited her.

"I think they have good intentions," Bauerle said of the former students. "They really love her and care for her … She has had a tremendous effect on these people."

Perkins, Caldwell's guardian, says she understands the former students' concerns but faulted them for taking their complaints public instead of contacting her, the state Department of Elderly Affairs or the Alliance for Long Term Care, a federally-funded agency in Rhode Island that acts as a watchdog for the elderly.

"The way this has happened has been horrific. We need to address these issues in a private manner to give Winnie the respect she deserves," Perkins said.

Perkins told the court that Caldwell's doctor, who saw her 21 times over the last year, was "surprised" by the allegations of abuse and neglect.

Deborah Gardiner, a former colleague and close friend of Caldwell, testified that she is "very comfortable" with the care Caldwell has been receiving.

The divisiveness over Caldwell's care was thrust into the public spotlight several weeks ago after Glenda Blake, one of Caldwell's caregivers from the Comfort Keepers agency, took a slew of notes that she and some co-workers had made documenting conditions at Caldwell's home and showed them to a lawyer and some of Caldwell's former students. Blake, a certified nursing assistant, was concerned, she said, that Caldwell was living in an unsafe environment and wasn't being given proper care. She said she sought legal advice because her boss, Robert Countie, was ignoring her complaints - something Countie vehemently denies.

The lawyer she went to told Blake to take the notebooks to the attorney general's office, which has an elder abuse unit. Blake was reluctant to do so but one of Caldwell's former students, Laura Matson Hahn, of New Hope, Pa., called the elder abuse unit and spoke to an investigator there.

When Perkins and Countie learned that Blake was disseminating what they believed to be confidential medical information, they told Blake she could no longer work for Caldwell and demanded that she return the notebooks. She has refused to turn them over. Instead, she photocopied the notebooks. Excerpts were distributed to Judge White and a raft of the professor's former students who gave them to the media.

Hahn calls Blake "Glenda the Good Witch," and a whistleblower. Perkins and Countie describe her as an opportunist "with an ulterior motive" who decided to violate a client's privacy rights in an effort to discredit them and secure a more lucrative position as a private, full-time caregiver for Caldwell.

Last Wednesday - on the eve of the public hearing over Caldwell's care - Countie filed a criminal complaint against Blake with the South Kingstown Police Department asking that she be charged with larceny for stealing the notebooks. He claims the notebooks are the property of Comfort Keepers and Caldwell and that Blake has "exploited" her former client by making them public. Blake says it was her idea to keep the notebooks and that she bought them herself at Wal-Mart. She says her boss expressed no interest in reviewing them.

Countie says the attorney general's office advised him to file the criminal complaint against Blake. A spokesman for that office, Michael J. Healey, confirmed Friday that that was true. Healey said his office has not seen the notebooks but wants to. The attorney general doesn't want to discourage people "who are trying to do the right thing" from reporting wrongdoing, said Healey. "But right now we have no evidence at all that Mrs. Caldwell is being or has been mistreated." South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia Jr. said he is asking for "further investigation" and input from the town solicitor before proceeding. "I'm not going to get an arrest warrant simply because someone files a complaint," he said.

Caldwell's former students say they are upset that Blake could wind up in prison and stripped of her CNA license "for speaking up for Wynne."

At Thursday's hearing, White cautioned Blake that while he was very interested in hearing from her, anything she said could be used against her if she was charged. "It's not in your best interest" to testify, he warned her. But Blake ignored his advice. She said she was not in court "to bad-mouth" anyone but because "I felt sad for Winnie."

As she stood before the judge, she pointed to one excerpt from the notebooks which she said had been authored by one of Caldwell's other caregivers. On her first visit to the house last Nov. 19, the new caregiver wrote: "House is a fire hazard; paper hanging on light bulbs; rat and mouse droppings in every room; roof leaking, water dripping throughout the house from ceilings. Very little food in home. Mold and mildew threw out (sic) house. Cat urine on furniture."

These problems existed in Caldwell's house "and were never corrected?" White asked Blake.

"Correct," she said.

Kathy Herren, clinical director of the Alliance, testified that she planned to file a complaint against Blake with the Department of Health - the agency that licenses CNAs. She said Blake had violated Caldwell's privacy rights under federal healthcare law. "Why would anyone put this stuff all over a newspaper?" she asked.

But Caldwell's students think what has happened to their beloved professor needs a public airing. They told White that she needs "stimulation," someone who can talk about Shakespeare with her. Right now, they said, she sits at home watching soap operas.
Former student Robert Cohen, a clinical psychologist from Maryland, said that when he called to speak to Caldwell one day at 9 a.m., he was told that she was sleeping and wouldn't be up until mid-afternoon. "That's unacceptable," he said. "We're here today out of a moral obligation. We've known this woman 34 years. To see her dirty, unkempt, her clothing torn. It's unacceptable. This is a proud, dignified woman who needs to be treated as such."

Editor's note: Tracy Breton, a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship for 2006-2007, is writing an intermittent series of stories about elder abuse and exploitation.

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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