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Caretaker for autistic man ordered to not interfere with his affairs

The Day - 3/19/2019

March 19-- Mar. 19--37

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Waterford -- Robert McDonald would like things to stay the way they are until he occupies the plot he says is waiting for him in the Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The 76-year-old retired town transfer station worker, who is autistic, owns and lives in the Kenyon Road home where he grew up. He wants to continue residing there with his cousin, Janet Smith, who has been staying with him and caring for him for the past 14 years.

But it's not up to McDonald.

He is what is known as a "conserved person" who has been deemed by a probate judge to be unable to care for himself or manage his financial affairs. He has two conservators, one for personal affairs and one for financial affairs, and is represented by a probate court-appointed attorney.

Smith, also in her 70s, is being forced to move out amid allegations by neighbors, at least one relative and McDonald's personal conservator that she has been abusing McDonald and misspending his money. Her accusers say Smith isolates, bullies and screams at McDonald. They said she recently tried to get him to sign over his house to her, even though as a conserved person, he doesn't have authority to do so. They said she was feeding him sugary and fattening foods even though he is a diabetic.

"I'd rather have her stay here," McDonald said during an interview at his home Monday afternoon. "She did not push me or anything else."

McDonald sat in a recliner in his enclosed back porch, watching a rerun of "Gunsmoke" on his 50-inch television. The porch has been serving as a bedroom since he developed problems walking up to the second floor. He was pink-faced following a physical therapy session in which the newest addition to the household, a private health aide named Zie Marque, coached him as he practiced walking down and up the outside stairs.

Smith, who has worked out of the home as a phone-in spiritual adviser, has an office on the first floor and occupies other rooms, a point of contention with her detractors, who say McDonald only uses "six percent" of his own house.

Smith told probate Judge Mathew Greene during a hearing last week that she plans to move out by June 4. Had she not agreed to leave voluntarily, McDonald's attorney, Yona Gregory, said she would start eviction proceedings against Smith, who is considered a tenant.

"There's a lot of 'he said, she said,' " Gregory said during the hearing. "Adult (Protective) Services was involved and it's my understanding they couldn't substantiate (abuse) and were looking to the Probate Court. In my belief, in order to protect Mr. McDonald, she should vacate."

Attorney Dominic Piacenza has served as McDonald's financial conservator for several years, managing the $5,000 a month McDonald receives in pension and Social Security payments as well his approximately $400,000 in funds. Piacenza is on vacation and was unable to attend last week's hearing. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

In addition to the financial conservator, Gregory said she recommended appointing a personal conservator last summer after social workers at Beechwood rehabilitation center told her of concerns about his well being. Their concerns came as McDonald recovered at Beechwood last summer after being hospitalized for injuries due to a fall.

Corina Vendetto, a registered nurse, was appointed the personal conservator and concurred with those who think Smith is abusive. Vendetto and others suggest McDonald, who is more resistant to change due to his autism, has a form of "Stockholm Syndrome," which is when a victim feels trust or affection for his abuser. Vendetto asked that Smith be removed from the home and that she not be able to have contact with McDonald.

Judge Greene asked Vendetto about "the big issue" that prompted last week's hearing, and Vendetto said she had documented that Smith attempted to give McDonald medications that are not prescribed to him. Smith said she had given McDonald a Tylenol after his doctor said it was OK.

McDonald said his neighbors are upset because they used to be get paid for doing yardwork and cleaning his house until "the money ran out." A recent budget submitted by Piacenza indicates that with the 24-hour health aide now employed to care for McDonald, household expenses are about $10,000 a month, which is double McDonald's income.

Smith said during an interview at the home Monday that she has never taken money from McDonald and that she had planned to live at the home until he died or went to a nursing home. She said that she is the beneficiary of his will and that some of the same neighbors who are accusing her of abuse are secondary beneficiaries.

Probate Judge Greene said "personality conflicts" seem to be driving the issue. He said a meeting would be scheduled to decide what would happen until Smith moved out, and warned her not to interfere with McDonald's conservator or attorney.

"If there is an emergency you can certainly call 911, but other than that you have no capacity whatsoever to make decisions," Greene said.

k.florin@theday.com

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