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Court Review Finds No Abuse or Neglect of Former URI Professor

20 June 2007

By Tracy Breton

SOUTH KINGSTOWN - A court-appointed special master says he has found no evidence of abuse or neglect of Winifred Caldwell, the popular former University of Rhode Island professor who is now 90 and suffers from advanced dementia.

In a 16-page report filed with South Kingstown Probate Judge Stephen R. White, lawyer George J. Bauerle III says he conducted an in-depth investigation of Caldwell's at-home care by the Comfort Keepers agency and that while everything wasn't "perfect," Caldwell "has been appropriately cared for." He recommends that her court-appointed guardian, lawyer Cherrie Perkins, be retained.

Last month, five of Caldwell's former students, now in their 50s, returned to Rhode Island - some by plane, others by car - to tell White that they believed their beloved professor was the victim of caregiver neglect. They said they based their opinions on first-hand observations as well as a slew of notes taken by Caldwell's former caregivers, which were circulated to the students and the media by a former employee, Glenda Blake.

The former students, who include a clinical psychologist from Maryland, were highly critical of Perkins' work for Caldwell and offered to take over as their former professor's guardians even though they live out-of-state. They say they are heartbroken over what has befallen Winifred Caldwell. When they visit her, they say, they have found her in tattered and soiled clothing, her hygiene unkempt, and living conditions so squalid that they have left her house weeping.

White is to decide tomorrow whether a change in guardians is merited. Perkins wants to remain as Caldwell's guardian for health-care matters. Caldwell's grand-nephew, Gareth Bestor, who lives in Oregon, currently has power of attorney and pays her bills.

Caldwell wants to remain in her home, even though the Department of Elderly Affairs has suggested that assisted-living would be a more appropriate residence. Caring for her in her old house on the perimeter of the Kingston campus has become more difficult as her mental health continues to decline, Bauerle says. Recently, Perkins hired a new agency that provides a higher level of caregiving, which Bauerle says is appropriate.

The special master says in his report that he's certain that Caldwell would love it if one of her former students took over as guardian for her "but that is not practical" because they live out-of-state. He also chides the former students for airing their concerns about Caldwell's care in the media instead of talking privately with Perkins, White and the owners of Comfort Keepers. "The publicity is not what Mrs. Caldwell would have wanted or needed at this point in her life," he says.

Bauerle says he thinks the former students "do not fully realize the present level of Mrs. Caldwell's dementia" and that they "do not want to accept the fact that Mrs. Caldwell has dementia and is not the same person as she was."

"Her condition is irreversible," says Bauerle and "the diagnosis and prognosis for her is poor." He says she is in such bad cognitive shape "that she should not even go out of her home unattended. … Mrs. Caldwell can remember issues and incidents that occurred years ago, but does not have any short term memory of recent occurrences." She also "has difficulty hearing, which makes it hard to communicate."

Bauerle said he found her home "cluttered," as close friends say it has always been, "but not dirty." Caldwell "appeared to be healthy and clean," he said, and Perkins has seen to it that there have been "continuing repairs" to the house.

Bauerle said it is obvious that Caldwell "has had considerable influence" on her former students' lives and that they "have considerable admiration and love for her" and are acting with "the best intentions …." But he said that most of their contact with her has been over the phone, not "daily, in-person contact," and that some of their negative opinions of Perkins and the Comfort Keepers caregivers have been based on representations made by Blake and caregiver diaries.

Comfort Keepers recently asked the South Kingstown police to charge Blake with larceny for stealing the caregiver notebooks and disseminating their contents, but the police say they will not charge her because it was unclear from their investigation who actually owns the notebooks. Blake claims she bought the notebooks and that her former boss expressed no interest in seeing them. Perkins and Robert Countie, who owns Comfort Keepers, assert that the notebooks are the private property of Caldwell. While Blake claims to be a whistle-blower, they say she disseminated the notes with an "ulterior motive" - that she wants to secure a more lucrative position as Caldwell's private, full-time caregiver.

Bauerle says that Caldwell told him she wants Perkins to remain her guardian and that she doesn't want her former students involved in her life, "that they were causing trouble." But he says he also believes the students when they say that Caldwell has complained about Perkins and her caregivers to them. "The bottom line is that Mrs. Caldwell, with her condition, does not want any caregivers and wants to be independent but cannot be independent."

Bauerle says he believes the brouhaha stems in part from a misunderstanding. Caldwell's former students "are mistaken" about what the role of guardian "should be for an individual in Caldwell's situation."

"Attorney Perkins' role is not to be there on a daily basis but rather to have contact with Mrs. Caldwell and, more importantly, to hire the right individuals to take care of her" so she can remain in her house, as she wishes. He called the students' allegations against Perkins unsubstantiated.

While he says he found instances where Caldwell was "not being cleaned and her clothes [were] not being changed, this "was not a consistent problem … I have found that the caregivers interviewed sincerely cared for Mrs. Caldwell."

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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