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Trial Begins to Decide Care of Mother

8 May 2007

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Laurette Borduas Eifrig's only grandchild broke down in tears on the witness stand yesterday as she spoke of the feud between her mother and aunt over who should have control of her demented 90-year-old grandmother.

Alicea Ardito, 27, a bank loan officer who lives in Arlington, Va., told Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney that she would be willing to take over as her grandmother's guardian and "do the right thing" for her. Ardito said she would make sure that "whatever she wants is what she gets."

Weeping, Ardito told the court that Eifrig, who currently lives in Capitol Ridge assisted-living on Smith Street, "would drop dead if she knew what was happening to her. She doesn't know that her life savings are being spent on lawyers and in court ... She doesn't deserve this," she said.

Ardito's testimony came on the first day of a contested guardianship trial - something Gibney called a "family drama" - which pits Alicea's mother, Francine Ardito, a nurse who worked at the Walter Reed Army Hospital, against her aunt, Suzette Gebhard, a onetime congressional candidate and the former head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters.

The sisters are enmeshed in a bitter tug-of-war over what is in the best interest of their mother, who is blind and suffers from Alzheimer's disease and who, as a result of their dispute, has a court-appointed guardian, lawyer Paula M. Cuculo. Both sisters are contesting Cuculo's appointment by Gibney.

Francine Ardito formerly had power of attorney for her mother and was named by her mother as co-trustee and the major beneficiary of her trust. She testified yesterday that she wants to take over as her mother's guardian and move her back to Virginia, to an assisted-living facility a few blocks from where her daughter, Alicea, lives. She told the court that her daughter or her soon to be ex-husband, Ralph Ardito, who has a close relationship with her mother, would also be capable guardians.

Gebhard, who owns homes in Warren and Barrington and has a doctorate in social work, wants to move her mother back in with her or to an assisted-living facility in Barrington. Last week she was acquitted of an obstruction of justice charge for secreting Eifrig in her Warren house, keeping Cuculo from seeing her.

Eifrig, who is widowed, moved in 1993 - when she had her sight and memory - to Virginia to be close to the Arditos. Then, last May, without telling other family members, Gebhard canceled the lease to her mother's apartment, packed up her clothes and drove her to Rhode Island to live with her. She refused to let her sister and Cuculo see her mother for many months, defying court orders to give them access. Gibney found her in contempt.

Over Easter weekend, the judge found Gebhard to be a "kidnapping risk" after she went to Capitol Ridge and, according to a court order, caused her mother "to be visibly agitated and upset" at the end of a one-hour visit. Gebhard is currently barred from having any contact with her mother.

As the guardianship trial began yesterday morning, the sisters did not speak to each other and sat at opposite sides of the courtroom. Eifrig's younger sister, Hermine Borduas, of Toronto, who formerly had a close relationship with Gebhard, accompanied the Arditos and did not exchange any words with Gebhard. Neither did Alicea Ardito, who told the court that her relationship with her aunt was strained. The last time she called her grandmother at her Virginia apartment, she said, Gebhard listened in on the whole conversation. She told Gibney that if she were appointed guardian over her grandmother's finances, she wouldn't be surprised if her Aunt Suzette would come seeking a loan.

"I think I'd have her knocking on my door for the cash as soon as I got the responsibility," she testified - a remark that Gebhard's lawyer objected to and which the judge ordered stricken from the record.

Alicea Ardito testified that her mother had always taken excellent care of her grandmother and always put her grandmother's interests first.

But Borduas testified that Gebhard told her she had moved her mother to Rhode Island because Ardito planned to "incarcerate" her in a nursing home in Virginia. Eifrig's sister said that was not true, that Ardito was simply looking for a new adult day care facility for Eifrig.

Called to testify yesterday, Cuculo told Gibney that "right now," Eifrig "is content at Capitol Ridge." She does not want to move back to Virginia, live with Gebhard or go to assisted-living in Barrington. Cuculo said it's clear from talking to Eifrig that she loves both of her daughters.

On Sunday, she told the judge, Eifrig on her own came up with a suggestion that could be a compromise: Perhaps, she told Cuculo, she could move to an assisted-living facility halfway between Rhode Island and Virginia. That way each daughter would each have to travel the same distance to visit her.

Francine and Alicea Ardito say the current situation is unfair to them because they cannot afford to travel to Rhode Island to see Eifrig on a regular basis. They have visited Eifrig just twice at Capitol Ridge since Jan. 29, when she was forcibly taken by the police from Gebhard's house.

Today, the trial moves to Capitol Ridge, where Laurette Eifrig will be the star witness. Gibney will decide at the end of the trial who should have future control over the 90-year-old's finances, health-care decisions and living situation. Her decision will be based on what she believes Eifrig would choose for herself if she didn't have dementia.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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