The “leech,” as he is known to Gloria and Maurice Bowersox, knew just how long he could bleed their daughter dry.
He knew that the kind 33-year-old woman had schizophrenia.
He knew how lonely she was, trying to shape an independent life in the Olathe duplex her parents provided for her.
He could get her to do just about anything he wanted: pawning anything of value, opening store charge accounts in her name that he abused, pilfering the title to her car from her parents’ house so she could borrow money on it for him.
That one got her car repossessed.
For months, against their daughter’s will, they had tried to run him off. Then they finally realized they had the legal leverage to have him evicted.
Ha!, the con man laughed at Maurice Bowersox when the father confronted him. I won’t have to leave for 90 days.
“He knew the drill,” Bowersox said. “He’d been down this road before.”
Nearly three months later, in November, he was gone, finally. But the experience left the Bowersoxes freshly shaken by a pestilence that strikes people with mental illness and their families.
The mentally ill are vulnerable. They are often repeatedly exploited by predators, by strangers, by friends and sometimes even by their guardians or family members.
“A larger problem exists than we know,” said Kiersten Adkins, the executive director of Pathway to Hope in Olathe. “So much of it is hidden.”
She hears hard tales seemingly every week, she said, and not just of mistakes in bad relationships, but of bad decisions with payday loans, casino gambling and lottery tickets.
Such incidents expose the gaps in community support that leave so many people poorly protected and often lead to homelessness.
“Imagine if we weren’t here to help her,” Gloria Bowersox said of her daughter. “She’d be on the street.”
Lack of support
Predators are hard to catch and even harder to prosecute when the victim is a willing — and often collaborating — adult.
Social service agencies and case managers struggle to manage heavy loads while confronted with too few housing and treatment options to keep their clients protected. Guardianships help, as well as payee services that give a third-party agency control of getting bills paid, but they’re imperfect.
“Folks are trying to live in the community, but there are not enough supports to keep them from being taken advantage of,” said Wyandotte County District Judge Kate Lynch, who runs a special court docket for people with mental illness.
“Some will go into (a nursing home for mental illness), but when they come out they will go into an apartment, and we don’t know where they are,” she said. “We don’t know if they’re alive.”
By the time abuse complaints reach the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said Leslie Hale, the director of adult protective services, “things have gotten pretty bad.”
Many abuses go unreported because victims feel shame or they do not see themselves as abused. They may even aid in their exploitation.
“People strive toward independence,” Hale said. “You want the most minimal intervention as possible.”
Case managers can counsel a client and ask courts to help weigh their mental capacity to make decisions, “but if they are just making bad decisions, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”
It also can be difficult to pursue criminal or even civil cases against someone who is exploiting an adult with mental illness.
“It can be hard to sort out,” said Guyla Stidmon, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Kansas City.
“Family members and guardians take advantage of them on occasion,” she said. “Many (of the victims) suffer from paranoia, and there are not many pro bono attorneys around to help them.”
“Imagine being an arresting officer,” said Adkins of Pathway to Hope. “It’s a he-said, she-said thing, and one of them has mental illness. One is not making a lick of sense, and the other is telling a good story.”
The police usually tried hard to help, often sharing the Bowersoxes’ frustration.
Gloria Bowersox remembers the Olathe officer who was left sorting out the scene after one of their daughter’s previous roommates was arrested for crimes unrelated to their daughter.
It became clear why the arrested man had been living there. The officer obviously had seen it before.
“He said, ‘I hate it when people take advantage of people like this.’ ”
As someone with schizophrenia, their daughter can become confused by intrusive voices or hallucinations. She can grow incoherent.
Medication will control it at times, but then fail and need adjustments.
She started showing symptoms at 17, was diagnosed at 18 and was at one point a freshman at Kansas State University studying early childhood education when they had to bring her home.
The torment for the parents is that they never know how long her better, more lucid times will last or when the illness will overcome her once more.
There have been times when she participated in a panel of people speaking to students in schools, when she was reflective and able to discuss her symptoms.
She’d been in a good stretch, Gloria Bowersox said, before the latest predator crept in.
“He got her believing that he was her protector and that we were her enemies,” she said.
The daughter willingly gave in to his control. She was constantly without a phone, believing his warnings that electronics were dangerous.
The parents cut off funds to their daughter, regretful for the hardship it might bring her but seeing it as a way to root him out.
“Stop the money,” Maurice Bowersox said, quoting their daughter’s case manager, “and the leech will let go.”
But the leech hung on hard. Their daughter began hocking most anything of value for him. She took out store charge cards in her name.
One day the Bowersoxes came home and found their house had been searched. They would learn that the title to their daughter’s car was gone.
Their daughter took out a loan on her car, and it was soon repossessed.
Even protections come with quandaries and risks.
Payee services can be obvious aids. Disability checks and other income go to a third-party holder that makes sure important bills such as rent and utilities are paid and money for groceries is set aside before doling out discretionary funds.
But people with mental illness often won’t give up control of their money, or they’ll change their minds.
Many times they’ve come for help with their money “when they’re homeless, sleeping on benches and tired, knowing they can’t (protect their money),” said Margaret Agee of Helping Other People Inc.
Too often, though, people will go to the Social Security Administration office and press their wish to change their decision.
It puts a government agent in the position of assessing clients’ best interests in balance with their ability to make their own choices.
“Sure, they have the right (to ask to be their own payee),” Agee said, “but what was the reason they came (to a payee service) in the first place?”
Parents of an adult with mental illness can go to court and seek guardianship, and if they are successful that can help keep protections like payee services in place.
But some worry about bearing burdens that might otherwise be managed by state agencies. They worry about taking on liabilities or having to pass on the duty to other family members when they die.
“What else are you going to do?” said Corey Rasmussen, an attorney in estate planning. “It’s the lesser of two evils. If you don’t, you can’t protect them from themselves or others out there.”
If the person under guardianship incurs debts or causes damage, absent of negligence by the guardian, the law will usually protect the guardian, he said. Though that doesn’t mean you won’t get sued.
And it will be a lifelong job. You will need to train a successor, he said, or have a strategy to pass the care on.
“It’s tough,” he said. “We’ve been seeing higher diagnosis rates of mental illness than we’ve ever seen. It has to be on the radar for all of Kansas City to ask: What do we do?”
‘A safe place’
Anxiously, the Bowersoxes watch their daughter return from her fall.
With the help of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, they have paired her with a roommate.
“She’s lonely, she’s caring, she wants to help,” Gloria Bowersox said of her daughter.
They want the stigma to fall. They want more of the community to share in her cause for everyone suffering from illnesses.
“She needs places to go. She needs places to volunteer. She needs a safe place to be.”
To report abuse or exploitation
In Kansas, call 800-922-5330
In Missouri, call 800-392-0210
Or call 911
▪ Unexplained cuts, bruising, scalds or cigarette burns
▪ Unexplained fear of a person
▪ Changes in routine or appetite
▪ Unusual passivity or excessive compliance with an individual
▪ Trauma to breasts, buttocks, lower abdomen or thighs
▪ Difficulty walking or sitting
▪ Torn or stained underwear or bedclothes
▪ Unexplained money or gifts
▪ Unexplained inability to meet normal expenses
▪ Unexplained withdrawals accompanied by another person
▪ Unexplained missing funds or valuables
▪ Appearance of uninvolved friend or relative suddenly becoming the person’s representative