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Jerry Davich: Adult guardianship agency serves valuable role

Jerry Davich.

Jerry Davich.

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Updated: February 24, 2013 6:29AM



The 44-year-old mentally challenged woman walked into the East Chicago community center with her pants around her ankles and hands tied behind her back.

Her wrists were an angry blue, with open sores. Though she could barely speak, she asked for help removing the shoelaces that bound her arms. And then she asked for something to drink.

She was so neglected and severely emaciated (weighing less than 100 pounds), that when police arrived, they thought she was a 12-year-old boy. She was immediately sent to a hospital for treatment.

Meanwhile, police found out her address and investigated the home, finding no food in the kitchen and the overwhelming stench of neglect, including eight children, reportedly the woman’s siblings. They were removed from the home by the Department of Child Services.

The woman, whose name I can’t reveal, was under the legal guardianship of her mother and sister due to her mental incapacity. Obviously they abused that right, even misusing her monthly Social Security checks and not feeding the woman. To counter the abuse, she hoarded things, usually food.

The woman was skittish around people and very hesitant around strangers. She was easily agitated and would often tear her own clothing or destroy the property of others. In other words, because she was treated like an animal, she sometimes acted like one.

She was eventually referred to Northwest Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Inc., a Gary-based organization whose mission is to fill the growing need for protecting at-risk adults and persons with developmental disabilities or mental illness. The agency provides guardianship and related services for incapacitated adults when other resources or family members are not available.

Many of the clients have family members, but for whatever reason they choose to not be involved in the clients’ lives. Simply put, the nonprofit agency fills a void for people who can’t speak up for themselves.

Agency officials investigated the woman’s sad situation and petitioned for her guardianship. Three years ago this month, it was granted and the woman has been under its care ever since.

She was placed in a group home in Hammond, where she still lives today. There, she is fed regularly, given medical treatment, and she even takes part in social outings in the region.

“She still doesn’t speak much, but she has gained weight and she is thriving,” said Jennifer Norris, the agency’s director. “Her physical wounds have healed, and it appears her psychological wounds are beginning to heal. It breaks my heart to think about what she went through, but she is doing much better now.”

A voice for the voiceless

Another success story, one of many through the years for the unheralded, underfunded and underappreciated organization. It’s the agency that is now struggling to exist, bound by a shoestring budget and neglect from this region’s leaders, movers and shakers.

In fact, the agency almost had to close its doors last year due to lack of funding that traces back to state and federal budget cuts in 2010.

This would be a travesty for so many people in need, such as the woman in Hammond and many others in her situation. This is why the organization’s fourth annual fundraiser is more important than ever.

In conjunction with the American Culinary Foundation Chefs of Northwest Indiana, Adventures in International Cuisine takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday at Avalon Manor in Hobart. And you’re welcome to attend to find out more information about the agency, its tireless workers and its mission.

Currently, the agency is juggling 26 active cases with only seven volunteer guardians, another pressing need that possibly you can help. Training is available, and the agency will welcome your efforts with open arms. The need is certainly obvious.

In this country, there are at least 400,000 open cases involving adult guardianship, according to the National Guardianship Association.

In this state, there are at least 7,000 similar cases involving such clients, their property and their future. I’m convinced there are hundreds of more cases in Northwest Indiana.

When Norris visits the now 48-year-old woman in Hammond, the client takes Norris’ hand and shows off her bedroom.

“When I visited her late last month to drop off her Christmas present, she opened her gifts slowly, grinning as she opened each one,” Norris recalled.

“When she opened a present containing pink, purple and yellow butterfly sticker wall decals, she took me by the hand and led me into her room to help her put them up on the wall,” she said. “She and I put every butterfly sticker on the wall together.”

When Norris left the group home, the woman didn’t leave her room. She was too busy looking at the butterfly stickers on her wall.

“She did, however, wave goodbye and smile,” Norris noted.

To buy tickets for Thursday evening’s fundraiser, offer a donation, or if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer guardian, contact Northwest Indiana Adult Guardianship Services at 985-6566, or email jnorrisniags@gmail.com, or visit www.niags.org.

Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.thelakeshorefm.com.



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