Editor’s note: The following commentary is by Diana Lynne, author of a powerful, comprehensive book on Terri Schiavo’s life and death, titled “Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman.” This WND Books release is available at WorldNetDaily’s online store.
On Nov. 10, 1984, Theresa Marie Schindler became Theresa Marie Schiavo during a Catholic nuptial Mass in front of her family and approximately 250 guests. It was a defining moment for her life, and set the stage for her death 21 years later before a watching world.
Photographs depict a beaming Terri, just three weeks shy of her 21st birthday, elegantly adorned in a long-sleeved lace wedding gown and old-fashioned bonnet. For the formerly obese teenager, who had ever only dreamed of being in love, this momentous occasion opened up an exciting new chapter in her life. It would be a short chapter.
Flash forward to Nov. 10, 1992. Michael Schiavo succeeded in persuading a jury he needed millions of dollars in order to be able to take his bride of eight years, who was rendered incapacitated by a severe brain injury two years prior, home and care for her the rest of his life.
“I believe in my wedding vows,” Schiavo tearfully told the court five days earlier. “I believe in the vows that I took with my wife – through sickness, in health, for richer or poorer. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m going to do that.”
Schiavo won $2.25 million dollars from the malpractice lawsuit he filed against two of his wife’s former physicians for not anticipating her still-unexplained sudden collapse, during which her brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes. After attorneys’ fees and other debts were paid, $776,254 was placed in a trust fund to cover Terri Schiavo’s future medical costs and Michael pocketed more than $350,000 for loss of consortium.
A short six months later, Schiavo attempted to end Terri’s life. He ordered she not be given antibiotics to treat a urinary tract infection. He later testified he was aware the infection, if left untreated, would have killed her.
The brain-damaged but otherwise relatively healthy woman, who was neither dying nor suffering, would have died that summer in 1993 had the nursing home not disobeyed Schiavo’s orders.
The incident sparked a 12-year legal tug-of-war over Terri between Michael Schiavo and her parents and siblings. On March 18, Bob and Mary Schindler lost the battle they waged to block their son-in-law’s efforts to end Terri’s life through the court-ordered removal of her gastric feeding tube.
Another court order barring oral hydration and nutrition caused the 41-year-old to die of “marked dehydration” 13 days later. According to the medical examiner, she would have otherwise lived another decade.
Michael Schiavo had a competitive advantage over the Schindlers. He was Terri’s court-appointed guardian. He didn’t automatically assume this role by virtue of being the spouse. He applied for it.
Four months after his wife’s mysterious collapse, Schiavo filed a petition seeking a formal court declaration of Terri Schiavo’s incapacitation and his appointment as her legal guardian.
Within a matter of minutes on June 18, 1990, and without the knowledge of the Schindlers, Circuit Court Judge Robert F. Michael determined Terri was incapacitated. Finding no conflicts of interest, the judge next appointed Schiavo plenary guardian, or full guardian, which is someone who exercises all delegable legal rights and powers of the ward.
In his order, the judge stated that notice of the petition and hearing was “given to all known next of kin,” which comports with Florida guardianship law. There was no mention of notification of “interested persons,” which would have assuredly encompassed Terri’s parents and siblings.
The court appointment empowered Michael Schiavo to forever more leave the Schindlers in the dark and without a say over their daughter’s welfare. Michael Schiavo became Terri’s sole decision maker and admittedly instructed her caregivers to not share her medical information with her parents. He instituted a restricted visitor’s list and eventually posted a security guard outside the door of her room.
The case of Terri Schiavo is emblematic of how the guardianship system frequently fails to protect the best interests of wards across the country. It’s a system where guardians possess dictatorial control over their wards and operate free of scrutiny through the sealing of medical and financial records.
It’s a system not only ripe for abuse, but one in which fraud and abuse has occurred. Take the case of former attorney Wayne Phillips, who pleaded guilty earlier this year in a Pinellas County, Fla., courtroom to stealing more than $85,000 from two elderly clients – one of whom had been his teacher in high school.
“The exploitation and mismanagement of the assets of the elderly and infirm by their court-appointed guardians is a story as old as Florida,” declared the editors of the St. Petersburg Times in September 2003.
Money magazine dubbed it the “gulag of guardianship” back in 1989. Advocates report no meaningful reform has taken place to alter that characterization.
Federal and state agencies and local prosecutors are loath to investigate suspicions of guardianship abuse, say insiders, because there are not enough resources available to back them up if they were to start questioning the system. They don’t want to open a Pandora’s box.
In the eyes of an overburdened court that offers limited oversight, guardians can do no wrong. Probate Judge George Greer, the primary adjudicator in this case, granted most every motion Schiavo put forth, including his request to cremate Terri upon her death, over the objections of her parents, who sought a proper burial according to the family’s Catholic tradition.
Greer is tasked with one other judge to supervise an estimated 6,000 guardianships in Pinellas County that represent $50 million in assets.
He not only allowed Michael Schiavo to file months and years late what are supposed to be prospective annual plans outlining the medical treatment and care proposed for the ward in the coming year, he authorized Schiavo to spend 59 percent of Terri’s medical-care monies on the attorneys he hired to pursue her death.
Florida statute 744, which governs guardianship, holds few requirements for eligibility for people seeking to become guardians. But among these, guardians must have no financial interest in the ward. As heir to his wife’s estate following the malpractice award, he stood to benefit financially from her death. Still, Greer gave him say over Terri’s fate, over the objections of the Schindlers.
Florida statute 744 outlines a list of specific rights reserved for wards that must be respected by their guardians, including the right to counsel, which she neither consistently had over the seven years since Schiavo filed his petition seeking the removal of her feeding tube, nor benefited from during any trial proceedings.
The reserved rights of wards mandated by Florida law also include the right to rehabilitation, which medical records and testimony by her treating physician and some caregivers indicate Terri Schiavo had not received since late 1992.
Yet, the numerous petitions and motions the Schindlers filed arguing Michael Schiavo was not fulfilling his obligations, or was ineligible to serve, as guardian failed to catch Greer’s attention.
On the eve of his daughter’s wedding on Nov. 10, 1984, Bob Schindler reportedly sat in her room and silently wept as she pretended to be asleep. He felt he was losing his little girl.
He could not know her marriage would lead to premature death.