Why Pediatrician Sued Texas Judge After Parent Died Under Court-Appointed Guardianship

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Sheila Owens-Collins.

When Dr. Sheila Owens Collins’s elderly mother was placed under a court-appointed guardianship, she never dreamed that it would lead her to sue a judge, but that’s exactly what happened.

The physician executive filed a federal lawsuit against Probate Judge Michael Newman last year after her mother, Mrs. Hattie Owens, died under court supervision.

Owens Collins is the first cousin of freshman Congressman Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who was elected in Nov. 2020.

She granted the Dallas Express the following exclusive interview.

Dallas Express: Why did you sue Judge Michael Newman?

Owens-Collins: I wanted my mother’s last wish on this earth to be respected and complied with.  I have been shackled with grief and regret that I was not able to save her from the guardianship. I also wanted to salvage what little was left of her estate after attorneys were paid their $300 an hour fees.

Dallas Express: What did you sue for?

I allege in my complaint estate trafficking and racketeering and that Judge Newman was grossly negligent in allowing the unnecessary depletion of my mother’s estate by $93,000 after she was forced into hospice prematurely.

Dallas Express: What was your mother’s response when she learned she was being placed under court supervision?

Owens Collins: My mother put up a gallant fight and was very outspoken that she opposed the guardianship and the disruption of her relationship with me.  But the more she advocated for her rights and complained about being in prison, and declaring ‘This is not Russia,’ the more she was tested with repeated Independent Medical Exams (IME) without court permission. I have documentation as well as video clips of my mother expressing dismay about being under the thumb of a guardian. When the guardianship ended, the Will probate went to Judge Newman’s court.

Dallas Express: How was your relationship with your mother disrupted as a result of the guardianship?

Owens Collins: An attorney who was unrelated to our family was placed in charge of my mother’s care even though my mother named me her power of attorney and I am a physician. It is unfair for the guardian to be required to visit the ward once per month and the family and friends are severely restricted from visiting daily.

Dallas Express: What surprises you about court-appointed guardianship? That this is permitted to continue by the courts, the FBI, the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies. More and more adult children whose elderly mom or dad has a guardian, whether court appointed or a family member, are crying out for help with allegations of abuse and yet nothing is being done about it. Countless numbers of other adult children have sued and are currently suing and yet the courts dismiss them.

Dallas Express: As a physician, you must have some views on how the guardianship program in Texas can be improved. Would you mind sharing your professional viewpoint on that?

Owens Collins: The problem with the guardianship program in Texas that I personally experienced is that it is solely in the legal domain when many of the issues an elderly individual faces are medical and social. The portal to guardianship is too porous. Citizenship, dignity, connection with families, autonomy, and self-reliance should never be restricted or taken away. The financial incentives that keep people in guardianship until they die should be removed. More oversight is needed of the judges, attorneys, and facilities in which elderly people are placed. Adult Protective Services, a frequent portal, should be held accountable to provide due process for decisions so that they are well investigated with conclusions that are fair and credible. Finally, judges need to be held more accountable by reducing their broad immunity and develop a panel of experts to determine if guardianship is necessary with the idea of ending it as soon as feasible. Don’t make court supervision or guardianship a life sentence.

Dallas Express: What are the signs that an elderly person is being abused while under court supervision?

  • Being isolated or alienated from their loved ones through restricted visitation
  • Loss of interest in life and things that they usually enjoy
  • Unexplained bruises or lesions
  • Loss of teeth may indicate lack of dental care
  • Crying frequently
  • Crying when loved ones depart
  • Asking for food may indicate the elderly person is not being served tasty, nutritious food
  • Increased sleeping may indicate depression or over medication
  • Slurred speech may indicate over medication
  • Fear
  • Feeling hopeless about the future

Dallas Express: What is the status of your lawsuit against Judge Newman?

Owens Collins: It was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes upon the recommendation of Magistrate Peter Bray. I am appealing to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Dallas Express: What are your thoughts about the dismissal?

 Owens Collins: It is a reflection of the lack of transparency in the current system and what I believe is a predisposition for judges to provide cover for their fellow judges.  I didn’t think that he understood the case well. He was dismissive of my grievances, and loathed to admit that the behavior in the courtroom and in many courtrooms are consistent with estate trafficking. To admit to trafficking would open a can of worms and upset the status quo in a way that will always be resisted by probate court insiders.

Dallas Express: You have represented yourself without counsel. What advice would you give to others who would like to file a lawsuit pro-se?

Owens Collins: First, exhaust all other remedies including complaining to the Judicial Branch Certification Commission. Conquer your fear and remember your purpose, which should always be greater than you. Have a readily available source of support. Contact Dr. Sam Sugar at Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. Do your homework, because law is its own separate animal where missteps are easily made but not easily forgiven.

Dallas Express: How has suing Judge Newman changed you?

Owens Collins: I’ve become a tireless advocate for a problem that I didn’t know existed.  It touched my heart because I loved my mother and father so very much and realizing how vulnerable they became as they got older ignited a passion that I have for vulnerable populations to help them live the highest quality of life, despite adverse circumstances.

Before this experience, I saw situation outcomes as either a win or a loss.  I now realize that in the losses there are many wins – I call it “winning by losing”.  It was only through the losses and pushing forward as far as I could get in the court system, did I really get an understanding of the guardianship program – the good, bad, and ugly – to the extent that I can heal and move forward and more importantly help others in similar situations by sharing my experience, and the experience of my mother.   If I can prevent one person or family from the experience that my mother and I had, then this painful experience was not in vain. I will honor my mother’s legacy of strength, unconditional love, unflappable faith, and courage to face head on her uncertain future even when it became obvious that for her it was going to be death, and that she would never return to the house that she loved and was home for all of her children.

Dallas Express: Your cousin is Congressman Burgess Owens (R-Utah), who is your mother’s nephew. What has been his reaction?

Owens Collins: He has gone public with my mother’s story and he signed a letter inviting Britney Spears to testify before Congress. Congressman Charlie Crist (D-Florida) and Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina) introduced the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act earlier this month in response to the nationwide attention that Britney Spears has captured with her public struggle to end a court-appointed conservatorship that was imposed upon her after a mental health crisis 13 years ago. The bill proposes $260 million to fund the oversight of conservators and guardians.

Dallas Express: Is the FREE Act enough?

Owens Collins: No. The federal government should consider giving block grants to states specifically to protect elders in the guardianship program.  The federal government should provide a baseline infrastructure that has to be uniformly implemented by the states that would include, not exclusively, preserving the constitutional rights of the guardian, making sure that the least restrictive path is pursued for protection, and that the program is patient centered and family centered. What I think Congress should do next is a root-cause analysis of each poor outcome and develop metrices to prevent, correct, and monitor progress of the corrective action plans.

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