Tarrant County Judge Pat Ferchill announced his retirement effective Aug. 31 after sitting on the bench for 35 years in Probate Court No. 2. Ferchill was two years into a four-year term that expires in 2018. He will continue to sit on the bench as a visiting judge until county commissioners appoint his successor.
Some people might shed a tear for Ferchill’s departure, we suppose. Probate courts resolve some sticky family dramas at times.
“The county is going to miss him more than they’ll know after he’s actually gone,” Associate Judge Lin Morrisett told us on the phone this week.
You know who won’t miss him? The families who have described how a guardianship system overseen by Ferchill and fellow probate Judge Steven King have ripped apart families unnecessarily in the name of greed and power. The first case we examined in the Fort Worth Weekly involved Kathie Seidel, a mother who adopted a child from Russia but later lost custody after a guardianship hearing was held by Ferchill without Seidel being present (“Saving Katia,” July 2, 2008). After that article appeared, dozens of families called the Weekly to describe similar horror stories of a powerful court system under the influence of money-hungry attorneys and healthcare facility operators more interested in lining their pockets than doing what is best for families. Associate Editor Jeff Prince has written numerous stories about the probate system and has compiled a long list of local families who describe being victimized by the probate courts.
Frank and Chila Covington were one of those families. Ferchill removed them as guardians of their Down Syndrome daughter, Ceci, without bothering to let them know that their parental rights were being questioned. Yep, the court has that power and wielded it like a baseball bat against them in 2009. The Covingtons’ crime? They did not want caregivers at a group home to give powerful psychoactive drugs to Ceci. The doctors had given her anti-depressants after she had become cranky and emotional. Chila said pain from fibromyalgia and a tooth abscess had caused her daughter’s outbursts. “Both of these diagnoses were discovered after we got her back,” Chila said.
The Covingtons say Ferchill’s decision to remove them as guardians was a way to pad the pockets of attorneys and caregivers who profit from working with Guardianship Services, Inc., the program that Ferchill and his attorney buddies helped establish in 1998 allegedly to provide help for people in need.
Ferchill just wanted to send people to Guardianship Services, Chila said.
“We were just somebody else he could manipulate,” she said. “It is just greed.”
The Covingtons spent about $400,000 in a years-long fight to regain custody of their daughter.
Ferchill “devastated our lives with lies,” Chila said. “They decided to control my daughter’s destiny by saying she was psychotic.”
Another local woman, Dorothy Luck, was put under guardianship after the probate court decided she wasn’t mentally sound enough to manage her financial affairs correctly. Luck is elderly but quite sharp when it comes to her personal and financial affairs. But all it took was one complaint from a relative (who had a vested interest financially) and Luck found herself having to defend her abilities to take care of herself (“Grabbing the Purse,” Sept. 3, 2013). She proved herself capable time and again, but she couldn’t stand up against a court system so powerful that it can remove a person’s rights at will.
Over the next year or so, court-appointed attorneys charged about $500,000 to Luck’s bank account while, a’hem, valiantly fighting to protect her money from … uh … herself.
Seidel spent a decade fighting against Ferchill and the probate court’s methods, first as a lone voice in defense of Katia and, later, as part of advocacy groups such as G.R.A.D.E., or Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly, a group formed to help protect people from overzealous probate judges. Seidel died from cancer a few weeks ago, on August 16, at her Fort Worth home. She still blamed Ferchill for putting her family through hell unnecessarily. Shortly before she died, she e-mailed Prince.
“Things are pretty dicey with physical problems,” she wrote. “Of course, it is hard to do any letting go where my children and other loved ones are concerned. It won’t be difficult to let go of the physical challenges.”
After that first quick paragraph, she dived into the topic that drove her to rail against a powerful system for the last decade of her life. Her adopted daughter was put under guardianship, removed from her home, and prevented from seeing her mother for years.
Guardianship Services “is being informed this week that I am terminal in hopes that we can get more visits with Katia,” who is 30 years old now and living in a group home, “and to prepare her for my death,” Seidel wrote. “It kills me to think of what K will go through in having so little family support through the grief she will encounter … also, I want her to be able to go to grief counseling –– but am doubtful she will get it. We worked for more than six months trying to find money and a high-profile attorney to advocate for her knowing this might be coming.”
She ended her e-mail by expressing fears that the probate court would toss one more indignity her way as she was dying.
“If there is retaliation toward me (threatening to put me under guardianship), I have written a letter,” she said. Her son, Greg, “knows the location of it, and you may be interested in it.”
Seidel’s friends say she would have appreciated knowing that Ferchill will no longer sit on the bench.