Kathleen Ulsrud was someone you could trust, according to those with whom she worked. That was important because, as a professional, court-appointed guardian for the elderly, trust was her stock-in-trade.
When state workers came across seniors they deemed unable to care for themselves, Ulsrud often got the call. "She would always be there and be responsible when we needed a responsible person," says Robert Twomey, a former Adult Protective Services employee. "She was one of the top three or four on our list of professional guardians."
But that changed in 1998. After a ten-month investigation involving police, the state attorney's office, and Broward County court investigators, Det. John Murray arrested Ulsrud that December. Prosecutors allege she lied about her qualifications as a guardian, took more than $200,000 from wards, and falsified treatment plans. They charged her with 47 counts of exploitation, grand theft, and perjury.
The bust made the front page of The Herald and received less prominent play in the Sun-Sentinel. Ulsrud spent a few days in jail before Broward judge Stanton Kaplan released her on a $58,000 bond. Kaplan stipulated that Ulsrud "may not handle funds of any person defined by statute as elderly."
Almost two years later, Ulsrud's case has yet to go to trial. But she's still in business working with the elderly. These days she's a geriatric care manager instead of a guardian. Her continuing role with some of the area's most vulnerable citizens raises concerns about oversight and the effectiveness of guardianship laws.
The difference between the job titles is more than semantics. Guardians are appointed and overseen by the court. They must pass background checks, file treatment plans, and account for how they spend a ward's money. Geriatric care managers are usually hired by families to help with an infirm relative. Geriatric care managers are under little state or local supervision; they must meet no licensing requirement and are answerable only to those who employ them.
Ulsrud's Fort Lauderdale business, the Family Link, is listed in the Yellow Pages along with nine other companies and individuals under Geriatric Counseling and Services. New Times called her office recently to request materials. She sent a package including a cover letter, her résumé, a price sheet (she charges $75 per hour after a $250 initial assessment), and a list of reasons why one should hire a geriatric care manager. After a follow-up inquiry made clear the information was for a news story, Ulsrud stopped talking.
According to the materials, the Family Link employees "act as advocates for the client and can be there on a moment's notice.... Our goal is to provide continuity of care to our clients and families, in the best possible environment. Safety, dignity, confidentiality and quality of life are the prime considerations."
Ulsrud's résumé states that, as the company's director, she can provide services including "bill paying coordination," "insurance tracking," and "long and short-term client care planning."
Deborah Carpenter, Ulsrud's attorney, says her client doesn't handle any money. "She counsels people on bill-paying," says Carpenter. Asked for specifics about the business, Carpenter replies, "I am not interested in something that may not be to the benefit of my client."
One of the advantages of using a geriatric care manager, according to Ulsrud's material, is that services are "... streamlined and client centered, not complicated by bureaucratic red tape." That's a wise strategy. After all it was bureaucratic red tape, in the form of a background check, that got Ulsrud in trouble in the first place.
Ulsrud became eligible to work as a professional guardian in 1994, two years after she had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. From 1994 to 1998, she repeatedly lied on state forms when answering a query about whether she had ever been under such court protection, says Robert Taft, a guardianship investigator for the Broward County probate courts. "We are claiming she answered that question in the negative 80 times after the bankruptcy filing," he reports.
Until the mid '90s, no one was checking guardians' credit records, Taft explains. Then in 1997 Twomey took a job as a probate court investigator. He soon did an assessment of Ulsrud and informed Broward County judge Mel Grossman she may have committed perjury. Grossman considered the charge serious enough to pull Ulsrud from her 43 cases. Her wards were turned over to the South Florida Guardianship Program, a nonprofit organization that specializes in guardianships.
SFGP soon made some disturbing discoveries. In one instance Ulsrud was the guardian of a 90-year-old woman who lived at home with the help of full-time aides. When SFGP got the case, a worker checked on the woman and found an empty house. Neighbors said she had moved into a nearby apartment with one of her aides. The SFGP guardian tracked her down and learned she had not received her prescription medicine for almost nine months.
Taft also turned up damning evidence. "I called the doctor listed on the treatment plan, and he said he'd never heard of this [90-year-old] lady before," the investigator says. He found nine checks totaling $6275 written on the woman's account that didn't square with court records. In her accounting Ulsrud apparently listed the checks as payable to various parties, but she actually made them out to cash and endorsed them, the investigator reports. (Ulsrud has pleaded not guilty to all charges against her.)
And Taft discovered more financial aberrations. "We started seeing even-dollar-amount checks made payable to hospitals -- $400, $900, $1500 -- amounts you wouldn't expect to see written out to a hospital. It made no sense." Similarly, Taft believes, Ulsrud fraudulently accounted for the checks, wrote them out to cash, and endorsed them.
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In February 1998 Taft and Twomey invited the Broward Sheriff's Office, the state attorney, and the Department of Children and Families to help investigate. Ten months later Ulsrud was arrested. The final tally: 277 questionable checks, 39 instances of fudged treatment plans, and 18 elderly people who may have been exploited. "I don't see where this woman would have had time to eat or sleep when she was running around cashing checks and taking checks to all these places," says Taft.
It's unlikely Ulsrud will get work as a professional guardian again. But she's still a member in good standing of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers and is listed as such on the association's Website (www.caremanager.org). Association president Dianne Boazman finds that a little hard to believe. "I can't imagine a Florida care manager didn't report that."
Boazman's organization doesn't require background checks, although it does call for members to have at least a bachelor's degree in gerontology, social work, nursing, or counseling. Ulsrud has a master's degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin.
Indeed, even if she were kicked out of the association, Ulsrud could still call herself a geriatric care manager. And she could still work in a field where trust is everything. "All [care managers] are is basically guardians," says Twomey, "but they are totally unpoliced out there."