Clay and Harold: A Couple Forcibly Separated By Sonoma County

Recently making the rounds is a breathtakingly tragic story of an elderly gay couple that Sonoma County, California allegedly forcibly separated into different nursing homes, before possessing and selling off their property. It’s an incredibly upsetting story, so please be aware of that when making the decision to read further. From the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which is helping Clay with his lawsuit:

Clay and his partner of 20 years, Harold, lived in California. Clay and Harold made diligent efforts to protect their legal rights, and had their legal paperwork in place—wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, all naming each other. Harold was 88 years old and in frail medical condition, but still living at home with Clay, 77, who was in good health.

One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes.

Ignoring Clay’s significant role in Harold’s life, the county continued to treat Harold like he had no family and went to court seeking the power to make financial decisions on his behalf. Outrageously, the county represented to the judge that Clay was merely Harold’s “roommate.” The court denied their efforts, but did grant the county limited access to one of Harold’s bank accounts to pay for his care.

What happened next is even more chilling: without authority, without determining the value of Clay and Harold’s possessions accumulated over the course of their 20 years together or making any effort to determine which items belonged to whom, the county took everything Harold and Clay owned and auctioned off all of their belongings. Adding further insult to grave injury, the county removed Clay from his home and confined him to a nursing home against his will. The county workers then terminated Clay and Harold’s lease and surrendered the home they had shared for many years to the landlord.

Three months after he was hospitalized, Harold died in the nursing home. Because of the county’s actions, Clay missed the final months he should have had with his partner of 20 years. Compounding this tragedy, Clay has literally nothing left of the home he had shared with Harold or the life he was living up until the day that Harold fell, because he has been unable to recover any of his property. The only memento Clay has is a photo album that Harold painstakingly put together for Clay during the last three months of his life.

This story instantly reminds me of one that I blogged about last year, regarding Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond. As Lisa died, her partner of 17 years, Janice, was not allowed to see her in the hospital. Neither were their three children. While the abuse of Clay and Harold extended well beyond visitation rights, this core part of the story is tragically not unheard of. There are certainly many other couples who had their rights similarly violated but did not make the news.

Last week, President Obama issued a directive requiring hospitals to allow visitation rights to patients’ same-sex partners, as well as to other designated visitors. This action was apparently inspired by Janice and Lisa’s story, and Janice’s persistent activism. Obama even called Janice and apologized to her for what she endured. It’s a noble and necessary action, and one that I certainly hope will be enforced effectively.

But it’s too late for Harold and Lisa to spend the end of their lives with their partners. It’s too late for Clay and Janice to say goodbye. It’s also too late for Clay to retain his property, or to get back the months of his life he lost while forcibly confined to a nursing home. And it didn’t have to happen. In a world that treated all people, all partnerships, all love as equal, and in a world that respected LGBT rights, and in Clay and Harold’s case elder rights, it wouldn’t have happened.

I’m at a loss for words, but s.e. smith has much more.

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21 comments for “Clay and Harold: A Couple Forcibly Separated By Sonoma County

  1. Crystal
    April 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I cried on and off for an hour the first time I read this story. It has got to be one of the most tragic things I have ever heard, and it happens all the time. I didn’t hear that Obama called her…that is incredible. Good for him.

  2. PrettyAmiable
    April 20, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I teared up too, Crystal. I can’t imagine how horrible I would feel if I were a member of either of those couples – or the others who haven’t been able to or wanted to tell their story to the media. I’ve been telling everyone about this since I read it on feministing last night and hope that spreading awareness will somehow help this from happening again.

  3. UnFit
    April 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Holy shit. Every time I think, “gay or straight, who still cares about marriage” stories like these remind me how important this stupid piece of paper can get within just a few moments.

    I still think there should be better ways to secure property, visitation rights etc. (if only all the diligent, role model ways Clay and harold organized their affairs were legally binding – that would be a huge step forward) but until we get that fixed, marriage for everyone!

  4. April 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I read this story yesterday and it put me in the worst funk. Whichever side of the fence a person leans on, can’t people look at this story and think it’s cruel and sad that two elderly people would be treated in such a way?

    Oh, but wait, that’s right, if we let gay people get married, people will want to start marrying ducks. Well, that settles it then.

  5. Alara Rogers
    April 20, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    How did this even *happen*? I mean, setting aside the horror of how thoroughly Clay and Harold’s relationship was ignored… how could the county take Clay’s stuff, kick him out of his home if he was on the lease, and forcibly place him in a nursing home?

    This isn’t *just* abuse of gay men. This is also a horrifying abuse of elders, that should be passed on to the AARP, because no matter what an elderly person may think of Clay and Harold’s relationship, I cannot imagine a single senior believing it’s a good idea for the state to have the power to THROW YOU OUT OF YOUR HOME, CONFINE YOU TO A NURSING HOME AGAINST YOUR WILL AND AUCTION YOUR BELONGINGS because you’re a senior and the person you *lived* with, regardless of your relationship to that person, went to the hospital.

    It sounds to me like Sonoma County conducted a deliberate vendetta against Clay, possibly because he was agitating to see Harold and be involved in his care. So because a man had the absolutely understandable desire to be involved in the care of his partner, whom he had the legal authority to care for based on paperwork he and his partner signed, they didn’t just refuse him the right to see his partner… they imprisoned him against his will, stole and sold his possessions, *and* refused him the right to see his partner. Who was dying.

    A civil suit is not good enough for whoever did this to Clay. They need to be charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and grand theft larceny, for forcing him into a nursing home and for taking and auctioning his possessions, and they need a felony conviction and jail time. The *county* can pay out a civil suit to cover the cost of everything Clay lost that can actually be paid for, plus as large and painful a sum of money as they can be forced to pay for the loss of priceless time with his dying partner and the irreplaceable items… but the actual bureaucrats who made these decisions need to go to jail for it. This is not legal. I mean, even if Clay had in fact been merely Harold’s roommate this wouldn’t have been legal.

    And if this can be done to someone who was legally defined as a roommate, it could be done to someone who is legally defined as a wife, a brother, a sister, a husband… if a bureaucrat had the power to forcibly confine Harold’s “roommate” to a nursing home and steal his stuff, then a bureaucrat would have had the power to do it to Harold’s “husband” if said husband had done things the bureaucrat didn’t like. Straight couples aren’t safe either, and neither are elderly siblings who room together. This was in effect a declaration that old people have no human rights.

  6. Amanda in the South Bay
    April 20, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I still think there should be better ways to secure property, visitation rights etc. (if only all the diligent, role model ways Clay and harold organized their affairs were legally binding – that would be a huge step forward) but until we get that fixed, marriage for everyone!

  7. a lawyer
    April 20, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Speaking as a professional, it looks like what happened is that the county got Harold to sign an agreement appointing the county his conservator and got the court to declare Clay incompetent on the ground that he had dementia. The complaint alleges that the conservatorship agreement was obtained by undue influence and that the county lied to the court about Clay’s supposed dementia.

    They’re also alleging that the defendant county employees had Harold and Clay’s stuff sold for their personal benefit and that the defendant auctioneer took an 25%(!) commission on the sales.

    Assuming the facts are as alleged, there’s absolutely no legal justification for this. It’s criminal (literally).

  8. UnFit
    April 20, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    amanda, I stand corrected. I didn’t know how far domestic partnerships etc. reach, legally.

  9. Sailorman
    April 20, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Wow, what a clusterfuck. That’s horrible.

    Not to make it more depressing, but this type of thing isn’t actually unheard of. When you get on the wrong side of the state–for what can be an arbitrary, accident, or completely incorrect reason–things can go downhill very fast.

  10. Kassi
    April 20, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Wow…I was just reading this, and it astounds me.
    I’m flashing back to my own grandparents, and how together they were the last few months of my grandma’s time here; just imagining someone being denied that? Simply on the basis of their sexual orientation?

    It’s bullshit. I can’t believe stuff like this goes on–although it made me ridiculously happy to see that Obama’s doing what he can to start changing these situations, it doesn’t change the fact that there are already so many couples that have been denied solace and closure, hell, their basic rights as humans and people in love! solely because of the fact that they’re not your “typical” couple.

    It just…’s sickening. I only wish we could’ve started changing all of this before people had to suffer. Hopefully, we can make differences enough to prevent more needless suffering in the future.

  11. Kyra
    April 20, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    A civil suit is not good enough for whoever did this to Clay. They need to be charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and grand theft larceny, for forcing him into a nursing home and for taking and auctioning his possessions, and they need a felony conviction and jail time.


    When I read about the Lisa Pond/Janice Langbehn case, reading Janet’s descriptions of what the hospital administrator said to her, I wanted that administrator hauled off in handcuffs in front of everybody she worked with and charged with torture, false imprisonment, and emotional abuse. (Not sure what the exact charge is for torture, though.)

  12. Kyra
    April 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Random aside—this also discriminates against people by familial status. If a person does not have any legally-recognized family members, whether due to outliving them for various reasons, or infertility, or not marrying, or whatever, and they have no ability to legally appoint someone they trust to see to their affairs should they need any, then they are forced to go without said advocacy, as it gets more and more likely that they will need it to preserve their own quality of life.

    They’re saying if you don’t have approved family, then you’re at the mercy of whatever bureaucrat comes to hand first when you’re incapacitated.

  13. April 20, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Its a disgusting case of injustice, no doubt about it.

  14. karak
    April 20, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    my grandparents are 75 and 77, respectively. If someone separated one from the other, especially when one was ill, the other partner would be in terrified hysterics and possibly die of stress and grief. And to lose all of their belongings! Their life together! I just… I had to close the door to the room and cry and cry for a while. How could you do that? What is WRONG with people?

  15. piny
    April 21, 2010 at 4:18 am

    I know. My grandfather had a stroke a week or so ago–I can’t imagine what this kind of abuse would do to my grandmother.

  16. Dawn.
    April 21, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    OMFG. This is so depressing and infuriating. My heart goes out to Clay and the countless others who have endured such an incredibly inhumane ordeal. No one should be treated this way. NO ONE.

  17. M. Eden
    April 21, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    This is the response I got when I contacted the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office:

    Email response for Greene v. Sonoma County Inquiries

    Thank you for your email regarding the Harold Scull and Clay Greene matter involving the Sonoma County Public Guardian’s Office. We appreciate the concern that has been expressed by the comments received and know that when the full facts are able to be revealed there will be a better understanding. It is the policy of this department not to disclose confidential matters concerning clients assisted by the agencies operating under its direction. This is consistent with federal and state privacy laws.

    What can be legally shared at this point is as follows: The Sonoma County Public Guardian became involved in this matter as a result of a report from Harold Scull that Clay Greene had physically assaulted him, resulting in Mr. Scull’s hospitalization. Mr. Greene’s domestic violence against Mr. Scull has been independently verified during the course of litigation, including reports of witnesses who tended to Mr. Scull following his hospitalization. While criminal charges were not filed, that does not mean there was no domestic violence. In order to file criminal charges, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard known in the law.

    Recent online commentary reflects a distorted presentation of the underlying facts. The County is confident that when the full facts can be discussed they will show the individuals involved received appropriate services. More importantly, we are confident that the facts will show that the services received by Mr. Scull and Mr. Greene reflect the ongoing commitment to protect vulnerable citizens from harm and that no issues of discrimination were present.

    Unfortunately, it appears the Plaintiffs are trying to litigate this case through the internet and the press – trying to spin the case as one of insensitivity towards people who happen to be gay by County Staff. In fact, this case is really about domestic violence and the statutory obligation the County has to protect vulnerable individuals from abuse and harm.

    The heart of this case is protecting an elder victim of domestic violence. That’s why the Public Guardian’s Office took the actions it did. The County has a long history of taking a strong stand against domestic violence no matter who is the victim.

    Very truly yours,

    Joshua A. Myers
    Deputy County Counsel
    Sonoma County Counsel’s Office
    575 Administration Drive, Suite 105A
    Santa Rosa, California 95403

  18. piny
    April 21, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    …That might explain refusing hospital visits, although I don’t understand why this explanation wasn’t provided to Mr. Greene at the time. It might also explain the attempt to arrogate control over Mr. Scull’s medical decisions, although I don’t understand why this explanation wasn’t provided to Mr. Greene at the time. I also don’t understand why this didn’t come up during the court proceeding that was all about why Mr. Scull needed the county to make medical decisions for him, because nobody else was available to step in.

    It does not explain auctioning off the couple’s possessions, or booting Mr. Greene out of his home. And it definitely does not explain forcibly committing Mr. Greene to a nursing home.

    It smells.

  19. David
    April 21, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Greene was abusing his partner, possibly leading to his death. Awesome.

    Hooray for poor journalism and sensationalism.

    • April 22, 2010 at 9:21 am

      What piny said. The additional information is definitely important. But it doesn’t explain the full scope of what was allegedly done here.

  20. April 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Welcome to the world of institutionalization.

    This case pisses me off so much.

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