By AISLING SWIFT
Originally published 06:55 p.m., December 23, 2009
Updated 06:19 p.m., December 28, 2009
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NAPLES — All Denise Vozzella wants for Christmas is her two parents.
But the 54-year-old North Naples woman won’t be allowed to spend Christmas Day with them at Windsor Place assisted-living facility in Naples.
Harold A. Foy, a legal guardian assigned to care for her parents, who both suffer from dementia, has refused her request, which she outlined in a letter.
Denise Vozzella hasn’t seen 81-year-old Marcel Vozzella and her mother, Jacqueline, 83, since Dec. 1, when she was asked to leave after the guardian contended her visits upset her parents and Windsor Place staff, who don’t want her within 100 feet of the home without being accompanied by a legal guardian.
On Dec. 10, Foy filed an emergency petition, seeking an order to further restrict her two-hour, twice-weekly supervised visitations. He contended Denise Vozzella curses at nurses, aides, and other staff, repeatedly tells her parents she’s broke to get money, and that the guardian is trying to kick her out of their house and spending all their money.
Foy said her visits upset her parents and cause her father’s blood pressure to rise, so he wanted to temporarily eliminate visitation to “stabilize” their anxiety and “maintain” their health.
Vozzella and her attorney, Nikki Uri of North Naples, fought that. Vozzella cried to Acting Collier Circuit Judge Vince Murphy as she described their close relationship, how she was a traditional Italian daughter and left a job and fiancé to return to Naples to care for them when they needed her.
“I’ve taken care of them, bathed them, clothed them and fed them,” Vozzella testified, sobbing as she detailed the last 14 years. “… I promised my parents I would do everything I could to take care of them.”
Denise Vozzella testified they cry when she leaves. And her father doesn’t like a supervisor listening to their conversations and tries to get them to leave. She called the supervised visits unfair, noting these could be the last days of her parents’ lives.
“They should be at home with their daughter … not with people who don’t love them,” Vozzella testified, her voice choking with emotion as she wiped away tears.
Uri called the guardian’s accusations false and absurd and urged the judge to prevent further restrictions.
“It’s one week before Christmas,” Uri told Murphy during her closing arguments Friday. “To cut off visits right now would be absolutely cruelty. This may be the last Christmas of their lives.”
But Murphy couldn’t grant a Christmas visit. His hands were tied.
Uri and Denise Vozzella hadn’t filed a legal petition asking for that and Foy and his attorney, Kenny Kemp of Fort Myers, didn’t offer when Uri complained to Murphy.
But when Uri asked that Vozzella be allowed to see them on Christmas Eve, today, Murphy said: “I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all.”
Christmas Eve falls on Vozzella’s supervised Tuesday-Thursday visitation schedule, so she’ll spend two hours this afternoon with her parents, singing carols and giving them gifts.
The judge told Kemp and Foy that they already had the legal authority to terminate visits if her parents got upset and to intervene and oversee visits. However, Murphy added: “Please allow the holiday to be a time for the family to get together …”
Vozzella left with hope her parents would someday return home and called Murphy’s ruling fair. She’d feared further restrictions on her four hours of visitation each week. “I wanted to say so much. I want to bring my parents home,” she added.
Kemp and Foy declined comment and wouldn’t respond to Uri’s and Vozzella’s contentions that they’re looting her parents’ bank account. They contend more than $40,000 monthly is being taken to pay for expenses, including a private nursing service.
In July, Uri filed a motion that argued the Vozzellas were forced out of their home, where they had full-time nurses; their original guardian refused to pay for their care; and she instructed doctors at Windsor Place to drug Marcel Vozzella with powerful sedatives when he expresses unhappiness about where he’s living and not being able to see his daughter.
For Denise Vozzella, it’s been an 11-month battle to have her parents returned to their home on Hawkesbury Way in Island Walk, a North Naples gated community.
The case began Feb. 23, when her brother sought an emergency temporary guardian questioning his sister’s spending for her parents. A month later, Sara Steiner of Naples was appointed permanent guardian and sought a judge’s determination that Marcel and Jackie Vozzella, who also is blind, were incompetent.
Circuit Judge Lawrence Martin granted that order.
Court records detail the battle among Vozzella, Steiner and Steiner’s attorney, Patrick C. Weber, the questioning of billing for lawyers, guardians, supervised visits, and the private nursing care, which is in addition to what’s provided at Windsor Place.
Vozzella fired her original attorney and hired Uri, who successfully filed a motion in July to have Steiner removed after she restricted supervised visits to one-hour weekly.
Uri’s motion contended Steiner made false accusations against Vozzella to prevent her from seeing her parents, including that she took $40 from her parents. Uri said she used it to buy them a phone to stay in touch and gave Steiner a receipt. But Steiner told the staff to turn it off.
On Father’s Day, the motion said, Steiner refused to allow Vozzella to see her father, which upset him. Uri also contended Steiner was violating her elderly wards’ trust agreement with their daughter by trying to force her out of her parents’ home.
Two months after Uri’s motion, Foy was appointed guardian. That month, he placed his name on the deed to the Vozzellas’ $321,500 home.
Uri confronted him in court, questioning why he’d go against the Vozzellas’ desire to leave their home to their daughter. “Isn’t it true that you intend to vacate and throw my client out of the family home?” she asked.
Foy didn’t deny it, replying, “Eventually, the trust would want to get rid of it because it’s a depreciating asset.”
Kemp presented two other witnesses, guardians who supervised the visits, both of whom testified they upset her parents. One explained supervision is geared to ensure the visits are “calm and warm.”
Kemp argued that they just want to be able to oversee the visits and cut them off if Vozzella doesn’t comply.
In the end, Murphy told Vozzella he understood she didn’t agree with many of Foy’s decisions, but said she could file petitions to fight them — and ask that her parents be returned home.
“Family is important for the wellbeing of incompetents,” Murphy said, adding that he was sure Foy didn’t want to permanently stop her visits, just temporarily. “I don’t have the authority right now to stop him from doing that. You have the authority to petition the court.”
Vozzella cried as Murphy, a county judge who heard the case because Martin is retiring, urged her to follow the guardian’s rules, noting that courts give guardians a “wide berth” when caring for wards’ health, finances — and determining where they live.
“It may not make sense to you, but with your parents’ condition, the guardian has authority,” Murphy said of Foy. “… I’m going to suggest to you that in order to return to these supervised visits, you’re going to need to comply with these rules … because he does have the authority to turn off the tap.”