Probate court cases illustrate Illinois’ broken adult protection system

In a letter to a social service agency, the Cook County Public Guardian criticized a lack of state intervention in several instances in which older adults with disabilities were being defrauded.

This story is part of a series about elder financial exploitation in Illinois. You can read more stories in the series here.

In 2015, the Cook County Public Guardian sent a blistering letter to Catholic Charities, one of about 40 Illinois Adult Protective Services contractors.

The state-contracted nonprofit was dropping the ball on protecting older adults from financial predators, the letter alleged. After victims lost their homes and money, they became wards of the state, putting control of their finances and care in probate court.

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Quick and effective intervention by the APS could have prevented those catastrophic losses and enabled the victims to remain in their homes with support or in top-quality nursing facilities, the Public Guardian said.

Cases such as those continue to crop up in Cook County probate court.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago said it could not address the specific cases, citing confidentiality. “Caring for those who seek assistance in their time of need is central to our mission. We will continue to strive to meet those needs with care and compassion,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

Illinois is an outlier among states in contracting out its APS program to a cadre of often-underpaid and ill-equipped social service caseworkers, an Injustice Watch investigation found. They often lack the resources to conduct thorough investigations, build sustained relationships of trust with victims, recover stolen assets, or hold perpetrators accountable.

The case files underscore the persistent failures of Illinois’ APS program as FBI reports show seniors in the state were swindled out of a record $75.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2014.

Here are a few examples:

Illustration of an older woman at an ATM with a shadowy figure standing next to it.

>> Norma Czajkowski, 76, had a mental disability and was living alone on the North Side after the death of her husband. In 2015, she took in a basement renter who began to show up with her at a bank as she withdrew large sums. The bank alerted police and froze her account after she appeared with the renter and liquidated a $28,000 certificate of deposit and then withdrew $12,000 cash. She waved off help and caseworkers reported she was alert and oriented, then asked the bank to unfreeze her accounts.

The bank called the public guardian, which immediately sent in a psychiatrist who described the home as “putrid” and “unimaginable to live in,” with a stench that was obvious from the sidewalk outside. Czajkowski had no gas service, no edible food, no running toilets, extensive cat urine and feces, rotting food throughout the home, and hoarded objects stacked to the ceiling, court papers show. She was hospitalized and moved into a senior living center, where she died in 2020.

Illustration of an older woman sitting on a couch with a cane next to her, with piles of garbage and papers scattered around the room.

>> Jessica Motto, 91, was living alone with dementia in 2015, when a family member called the public guardian and alleged Motto was being financially exploited by a home-care provider. The social service agency was already investigating the case but concluded the woman’s physical care was excellent and no intervention was necessary, according to the Cook County Public Guardian.

The guardian later determined the home-care provider had drained Motto’s accounts of $300,000 to pay for jewelry, clothes, plane tickets, and furniture. The home was filthy and stuffed with belongings, and neighbors told the guardian the home-care provider frequently left the woman alone, including one incident when she fell and was crying out for help.

Illustration of a man sitting in a car, seen through the window, with a woman waving him down reflected in the window.

>> The family of a 73-year-old retired janitor alerted Chicago police to his alleged financial exploitation in 2021. The widower, who had no children, had a neurocognitive disorder, court records show. A woman with a criminal history in Texas, Missouri, and Illinois encountered the man while he was stopped in traffic at a red light and convinced him they were already acquainted. She said she needed help for her grandchildren. He told the APS he believed her because “I am getting old and forget peoples’ names sometimes,” government records show.

Agency caseworkers substantiated allegations the woman financially exploited the 73-year-old, and he made his own separate report to local police. But the abuse continued as he made bank withdrawals totaling $67,500. At one point, the alleged perpetrator crashed his missing 2004 Ford Mustang while carrying $9,757 in cash, court records show. She also had his cellphone, making it difficult for him to contact his family and the APS investigators. No criminal charges were brought.

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