FLORENCE -- Public Fiduciary occupies a small corner of Pinal County government that most citizens never encounter — and most of those who do aren’t glad to see them, at least not at first.
“Unfortunately, when we become guardian for somebody, they’re not happy about us being in their life,” Public Fiduciary Director Patricia Taylor said. Sometimes these people, no longer competent to handle their own affairs, must leave their homes. “So we’re the enemy. … We’re the person that’s taking control of their money and their life.”
“We’ve been hit, we’ve been beat with canes,” Guardian Administrator Sabrina Lamb said. “There’s physical and emotional abuse that goes with this job too, but you just have to be able to talk to your inner self and know it’s not personal.”
Guardian Administrator Supervisor Rhonda Garcia said some new clients call later to apologize. “It’s a little hard though, when they’re threatening you and your family.”
The three women have worked together for more than 30 years in Public Fiduciary, helping vulnerable adults who are elderly, developmentally disabled or seriously mentally ill. Garcia and Lamb are now learning to manage without Taylor, whose last work day was Dec. 30.
Taylor said of retirement, “I’m very excited but I’m also very nervous because this has been my life for 34 years.” Including the time she worked for the Superior Court clerk before joining Public Fiduciary as a receptionist, Taylor had 35 years with Pinal County. She said she’s looking forward to spending more quality time with her teenage son.
She was director of the seven-member department since 2016. The department serves a total of 176 clients. Although the women have experienced a lot in more than 30 years together, every day is still new.
“I think we learn something every day from each other,” Taylor said. “… We’ve worked together so long, we’re like a family.”
“Every day is a learning experience,” Garcia said, “and we may not do something for 10 years, and I know I can go to either one of them and bounce it off them to find out, ‘What would you do?’”
Lamb said they’re also there to calm each other down in stressful situations. She said she has no worries taking a two- or three-week vacation, “and I know these girls are going to do exactly what I would have done.
“… And we’ve just kind of bonded as a family as well. We’ve been through so much together.” Family bonds became even stronger when Garcia married Lamb’s cousin.
“We’re more than coworkers,” Garcia said, “we don’t just work together, we’ve been in each other’s lives. We’ve been there for weddings, funerals, births and deaths, and we just know we have each other’s backs.”
“Back in the day, we used to be the ones that would go into the homes, and some of them would be in very bad shape,” Taylor said. “We would be in the homes cleaning them, inventorying them, moving furniture. Having to suit up because there were ticks crawling on us. We used to go into some very bad situations.”
‘Mice running around on countertops that were not bothered at all by us being there,” Garcia added.
“Thank goodness we don’t do that anymore,” Taylor said. Today, if a property needs to be packed up or cleaned out, they hire a company to do it. The previous department director and current county management stressed that type of work was unsafe. The guardians will still visit a home and do an inventory, which is required.
But that isn’t even the hardest job. Sometimes, a guardian must decide when it’s time to end a client’s life support.
“I think the most challenging part is the end of life and you have to make the decision that it’s time to let them go,” Lamb said. “… Of course, we don’t take that lightly and we get medical professionals to guide us through this. You go and sit at their bedside and you’re the only one there.”
Garcia said, “We have to decide what would they have wanted. We try to gather as much information as we can about that to make those decisions.”
“Or you go to the funeral because there’s nobody else there,” Taylor said. Sometimes, clients don’t have anyone else.
“Sometimes our clients just want to talk. Sometimes they’ll just call,” Taylor said. “Holidays can be a little difficult for some of them because they don’t have family.” Guardians buy their clients gifts so they’ll have something to open on Christmas Day.
The pandemic has been especially rough on clients who need personal contact. Video chat isn’t an acceptable alternative in many cases, the guardians said.
“And I’ve always said they give us way more than we ever give them,” Garcia said. “It’s the relationship.”
Clients are referred by Adult Protective Services, social workers, hospitals, courts, even a neighbor. It’s rare, but sometimes clients refer themselves.
As much as some clients resent them at first, others can’t let them go. Lamb recalled one client who took them to court to become his conservator, later took them to court to remove them, then took them to court become his conservator once again.
Garcia recalled another client for whom they tried to terminate their guardianship “because he was doing so well on his own that we weren’t really serving a purpose for him.” But he came to court to say, “’No, you are not getting rid of me.’”