April 19, 2010
by Brian Leubitz
End of life situations can often be even more tragic for LGBT couples. We are far less likely to have children to care for our elderly, and the current generation of LGBT senior citizens is still dealing with a lot of entrenched homophobia from their peers. However, a recent case shows just how difficult this situation can be. Kate Kendall of NCLR wrote about the story of one Sonoma County couple that was tragically separated at the end of their lives:
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.
Take a moment to read the whole article, or find more information at NCLR’s Elder Law Project. Basically, Harold broke his hip, and the County determined that both of them needed to go to nursing homes. They packed them off to different nursing homes that didn’t respect their relationship. Furthermore, they were not granted access and the respect that they deserved, both under common decency as well as under the legal documents that they had signed.
Would such a scenario have occurred with a straight couple? It seems doubtful, and this is the crux of the problem that we face. Not only is our situation simply out of the norm for social workers, but lack of resources means that training is falling behind. There is no way to make up for such a tragedy, but Sonoma County should at the very least start with an apology to Clay and work towards helping him recover as much of his stuff as possible.
Thing is, Sonoma County was well outside of the lines of the law in this case, so legislation can only partly address the situation. The most obvious solution would be marriage equality, and the respect of same-sex marriages. But, we need to ensure that those on the front lines are adequately aware of the laws already on the books and how to treat LGBT couples. This is a shameful story that should never be repeated.