Hildegarde’s Story 

The state says it’s keeping her in a nursing home for her own good. Her family says she’s better off at home. Both sides can’t be right.

Last February, on her 82nd birthday, Hildegarde Kostuk of Stevensville was detained by police outside Wal-Mart in Missoula, where her son had taken her on a birthday outing. Her crime? She wanted to live at home with her son, rather than in the nursing home where the state wants her to live. She was hustled into a patrol car and taken to the Bitterroot Valley Living Center in Stevensville, where she lives today, unable to leave, her movements within the nursing home monitored by the electronic bracelet she must wear on her wrist.

Her son, Arthur Kostuk, and daughter, Lillian Gunder, visit their mother nearly every day, but they leave without being able to answer the question she asks at each visit: When can I go home?

Hildegarde Kostuk’s family now finds itself in a battle with the state for legal guardianship of the elderly woman, with Gunder only dimly understanding how the state ever got control of her mother’s life in the first place.

Gunder accuses the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) of overstepping its bounds by taking custody of her mother. But the state, in the person of Jim Mason, Kostuk’s court-appointed guardian and an employee of DPHHS’ Adult Protective Services Division, says Gunder’s story is oversimplified and distorted.

Last December, Hildegarde’s husband Alexander died, leaving his wife at the family home, a historic school house on Burnt Fork Road which Alexander had spent more than a decade remodeling. Hildegarde’s son Arthur moved into her home to take care of her.

A child taking care of an elderly parent can be trying under the best of circumstances, but Arthur’s duty was made more difficult: His mother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. A Missoula doctor had examined Hildegarde and recommended she be cared for by a “medical guardian.”

And that’s where DPHHS came in. Social workers visited the Kostuk home to assess the living conditions both before and after Alexander’s death. One social worker found the couple to be “quite eccentric and isolated but friendly.” After her husband’s death, Hildegarde, because of her mental illness, was found by another social worker to be “at risk for further self neglect and self harm … and is in imminent danger to herself and others.”

Last May, the state sought and received legal guardianship of Hildegarde, a move now being challenged by her son, who last October petitioned the court for permanent guardianship of his mother. Gunder supports her brother. “They appoint these people as guardians,” she says of DPHHS. “The family should be the guardians, not the state.”

The state’s own reports on Hildegarde Kostuk’s life, health and present condition shed little light on the matter, riddled as they are with errors and conflicting statements. One report states that she is Catholic; in fact, she is Jewish. The same report says she has two sons, when in fact she has one son and one daughter. One report lists her condition as disheveled, while another says she is well-kept. Other reports criticize the condition of her home, saying it lacks drapes, that there are only two trees in the yard and that the lawn was brown—the lawn having been observed last July, at the onset of fire season.

At the heart of the issue, however, is Hildegarde’s welfare. One doctor says that she and her family are “in need of long term mental health support,” though an extensive psychiatric evaluation found that Arthur, who would be the caretaker, is himself mentally healthy. One social worker states that there are no appropriate medical services in the community, that Hildegarde refused to enroll in the Western Montana Mental Health Center and doesn’t take her medications. But by contrast, a psychiatric consultation report from St. Patrick Hospital claims that “[Hildegarde’s] assets include apparently supportive family members nearby and access to medical and mental health care.” And from the same consultation: “The patient has a full array of services available from the community mental health center in Hamilton by her case manager there.” The state goes on to quote Hildegarde as saying that Arthur is after her money, but at the same time it describes her as “delusional,” listing other statements Hildegarde has made to further emphasize her mental illness.

On Feb. 16, Hildegarde’s 82nd birthday, Arthur Kostuk took his mother to Missoula on a birthday outing. Gunder hints that her mother was not supposed to leave Ravalli County, and that her brother disobeyed those orders when he took her to Missoula.

The police were called and located the Kostuks, mother and son, in the Wal-Mart parking lot. “The cops were all there and acted like they were criminals,” Gunder says.

Hildegarde was escorted to the Bitterroot Valley Living Center by patrol car. She has been there ever since.

Gunder says her mother’s already fragile mental health began to deteriorate after she was sent to live at the nursing home. “We’d take her to town and walk around the mall,” she says of the days when her mother still lived in her own home. “At the nursing home, she lost her will to walk. There’s nothing to do there. It’s like she’s under arrest.”

Mason, her court-appointed guardian, is bound by confidentiality laws and cannot address the Kostuk situation directly.

What Mason can say is that the DPHHS is charged with protecting the safety, health and welfare of Montanans. “If someone is not in their home, it is because we worked and worked and worked to make their environments safer,” he says. But when those efforts fail, the state steps in and does what it can to protect the family member.

As for Gunder’s account of the Wal-Mart incident and subsequent events, Mason says, “What I’m hearing you say is an oversimplification of how we would manage an intervention. I’d say you got some very distorted information not supported by fact. If a person is in a skilled-care setting, there’s a reason for that.”

As for the police cars and electronic bracelet, Mason admits his department resorts to such measures only in rare circumstances.

“We’re not the ogres some people think we are,” he says.

Gunder isn’t convinced that her brother will prevail when the family goes to court on April 30. “They have all the rights,” she says of DPHHS. “There’s nothing you can do because they have the law on their side.”

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