In January, Dorris Hamilton, 93, was in the hospital for almost a week after refusing medication at her memory care facility, a place she deeply disliked. She preferred to live in her longtime home in Las Cruces — a modest ranch house off of busy Main Street — or at least in another facility of her choice, she told her son, Rio Hamilton. But the decision to move was not hers — or his — to make.
Dorris was entangled in a guardianship that had taken control of her life and her finances, as Searchlight New Mexico recounted in February 2021. She had been taken from her home and placed in the nursing home in August 2019, after an attorney, CaraLyn Banks, filed an emergency petition for guardianship, recommending that a local company be named her guardian. A judge gave his approval days later. Rio said he’d had no idea that Banks was filing the petition. (Banks disputed this account. In an email to Searchlight she said Hamilton was aware of the proceedings for Dorris’ guardianship.)
Ultimately, Dorris lost her independence and autonomy, unable to access her life savings or decide how or where to live. And Rio embarked on an exhaustive legal battle to end the guardianship and take over his mother’s care.
In May 2021, his wishes were partly granted: Chief District Court Judge Manuel Arrieta of Las Cruces gave Rio guardianship of his mother, allowing him to make medical and personal decisions for her, such as where she can and cannot go. The judge also allowed Rio to choose a new conservator to oversee his mother’s financial affairs. “We were really lucky to get somebody who’s trusted by the court, and trusted by my family, to now monitor the money.”
But difficulties persisted. For one, the court didn’t allow Rio to move his mother to a facility she liked or bring her back home, according to Rio. And he said Arrieta maintained Banks as an attorney on the case. As a result, Rio said she’s still allowed to bill his mother’s estate. Two attorneys from Disability Rights New Mexico are now on the case, working to protect his mother’s interest and needs, he said.
“Ever since we’ve been in this situation, we’ve been trying to explain to the judge that we’re in this because of Banks,” Rio said. “She has not seen my mother, has not bothered to visit. Not once! Not once in the three years that my mother’s been in this situation.”
Despite the ongoing legal struggles, Rio, who moved to Las Cruces from New York City in 2019 to take care of his mother, feels that things are looking up.
For one, the perils of adult guardianship have gained international attention in recent years, thanks in large part to the #FreeBritney movement, which publicized the plight of pop star Britney Spears and ultimately helped her end a 13-year conservatorship, terminated last November.
Dorris Hamilton’s case, for its part, led to reforms for guardianships and conservatorships in New Mexico. Last year, the state enacted a law that established new procedures to monitor and investigate guardianship and legal services providers, among other measures. In the current legislative session, Democrats introduced Senate Bill 35, which would place restrictions on temporary guardians and conservators to better protect people’s civil liberties; it would also bar them from liquidating people’s property without court authorization.
Life for Dorris is also improving. A court conference is scheduled for Feb. 22, when Rio hopes Banks will be discharged and the judge will allow him to bring his mother back to her home, to live with him.
In the interim, on Jan. 14, he filed an emergency motion to move her to an assisted living facility that she likes. Arrieta approved the motion just a few days later, Rio said.
Photographer Don J. Usner, who first met Dorris and Rio in 2020, traveled to Las Cruces to find out how the two are now doing. Here is what he saw and heard.
Rio Hamilton accompanies his mother, Dorris, into Heritage Assisted Living & Adult Day Care, the nursing home where she’s now living. He says he’s still awaiting the court’s permission to move her back to her home in Las Cruces. “It’s a vicious game,” he says about conservatorships in New Mexico.
Rio pauses a moment outside his mother’s new nursing home while recounting the ordeal of trying to recoup control of her affairs. What did he gain when he finally became her legal guardian? “A little bit of control — the ability to now see her when I want to, which was not something I could do prior.”
Dorris Hamilton and her son Rio, shown here during a 2020 visit at the memory care facility where she’d been placed by a court order. (COVID-19 restrictions prevented visitors from coming inside.) “When I wasn’t the guardian, she was restricted to the property. She was basically a prisoner,” Rio says.
“There have been laws that have been changed since my mother’s been in the situation — and rightly so. The community was so up in arms.” While recent legislative reforms are laudable, more are needed, Rio says. Among them: Emergency guardianship petitions should not be approved without a court hearing at which the affected person or a family member is present, he says.
“I’m glad that people are using my mom’s story to kind of guide them as to what’s really not right. I mean, I can certainly understand if you want to protect somebody who’s incapacitated, but there’s protection and there’s cruelty, and the difference is vast. So why not make sure that this person is actually incapacitated before you take them out of their home?”
Rio in the kitchen of Dorris’ home for 50 years, where he grew up. He moved to it from New York City to take care of it for his mother. “We got the roof changed on the house and a couple of other things. And we’re gradually getting to the point that Mom can come home and spend the weekends.”