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Josephine's home
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Josephine Bronczyk remembers the first day in the nursing home. "I just wanted to get out. I didn't care for it. It wasn't home," she says. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
An elderly Forest Lake woman has filed a federal lawsuit against Anoka County arguing that physically incapacitated, but mentally competent people, should be guaranteed the right to decide where they want to live. The woman claims the county coerced her from her home. But some attorneys say the lawsuit may be needlessly frightening seniors into the mistaken impression the government can simply remove them permanently from their homes against their will.

Forest Lake, Minn. — Josephine Bronczyk, a blue-eyed, frail 86-year-old woman sits in a wheelchair in the tiny parlor of her ancestral farmhouse in Forest Lake. Her parent's wedding picture taken early in the 20th century in Poznan, Poland hangs on the wall. To the right, is a wood carving in Polish that translates to, "God Bless Our Home." Bronczyk, the eldest of eight children is the last surviving member of her family. Until July 2001, she lived here with her brother, John, her main caretaker.

After her brother was hospitalized, Josephine was left with a helper who visited only twice a week. A hospital worker referred Josephine's case to the Anoka County Vulnerable Adult Unit, which sent a social worker unannounced to visit her.

After determining that Bronczyk needed help to stand, use the bathroom, dress herself, and take her medicines, the social worker told Bronczyk she needed to go to a nursing home temporarily until the county could arrange in-home care. Bronczyk refused several times during several visits.

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Image Josephine in her parlour

What happened next is in dispute. Bronczyk's lawyer, Erick Kaardal, claims the social worker coerced Josephine to leave her home against her will.

"She was told by the social worker she had no options, legal or otherwise. She went to the nursing home. And once at the nursing home, she called me and asked what her legal options were and I told her she had a right to be where she wanted to be," Kaardal said.

Josephine remembers the first day in the nursing home.

"I just wanted to get out. I didn't care for it. It wasn't home," she says.

About a month later, Kaardal arranged for 24-hour care for Josephine in her home. She signed herself out of the nursing home. Kaardal sued the county arguing Josephine should've never had to leave her home in the first place under the Fourth Amendment.

"Mostly we think of the Fourth Amendment in a criminal context in that before a police officer arrests you, the police officer has to go to a judge and get a warrant for your arrest. Similarly, our position is that adult protection must get a conservatorship order before they can seize you in your home and put you in a nursing home," Kaardal said.

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Image Asst Anoka County Attorney, Tom Haluska

The county says the social worker never seized Josephine. The county didn't take her to the nursing home, her out-of-state niece did. And, Josephine reluctantly, but voluntarily, signed herself in.

Assistant Anoka County Attorney Tom Haluska says, moreover, the county tried and could not find 24-hour, in-home care for Josephine on short notice. He says even Bronczyk's own attorney did not find in-home care for Josephine until she'd been in the nursing home for nearly a month.

"So she would've been at home, unable to take care of herself from falls, fires, to feed herself for almost a month. I think if you look at it from that standpoint, if the county had walked away from the situation, we would've faced a lawsuit and probably rightfully so," Haluska says.

Haluska says there are emergency provisions that allow the county to temporarily detain someone for 72 hours if they are in imminent danger to themselves or others; for example a person who's inebriated and sent to detox. But most often the county needs a court order to take anyone from their home. Even then, the county must go through multiple legal hurdles to set up a guardianship or conservatorship.

Attorney Robert McLeod co-chairs a state bar association section on legislation. He says Minnesota's conservatorship laws have safeguards that go beyond most of other states, including a requirement that the court appoint attorneys for those who can't afford them. McLeod says even so the courts try to find the least restrictive alternatives. He says the Bronczyk case may leave seniors with the wrong impression

"I feel bad that the population is led to believe that the government can just come in and take you from your home. The reality is that the system: the judges, the social workers, the attorneys that work in this area are very sensitive to a person's independence and none of them are in any hurry to make a person' s life difficult," McLeod said.

U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis could rule on the Bronczyk case at any time.

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