COLUMBIA — Connie Bell Hendren said she knows what it means to be a caretaker.
“I have dealt with and been intimately involved in mental illness my whole life,” said Hendren, who is challenging Boone County Public Administrator Cathy Richards in Tuesday's primary. Hendren is a 16-year veteran of the office who stepped down from the job four years ago. Now she's trying to win it back.
The public administrator manages the estates of deceased people, minors and people who are incapacitated or have disabilities when there is no one else available to do so. The administrator handles hundreds of cases at any given time. Many of the office's clients have mental illnesses.
While growing up, Hendren, 62, watched her great aunt spend most of her adult life in a state psychiatric hospital. Hendren's family chose her from among her five siblings to be the guardian of her younger sister, who has bipolar disorder.
During her tenure as public administrator from 1992 to 2008, Hendren said, her personal history connected her most to her clients and their families.
“I am able to relate to families and why they are looking to have someone other than a family member be a guardian,” Hendren said.
Hendren said she treated her clients as she would her sister. While in office, Hendren said, she would go out of her way to financially plan and save money to do something special for her clients.
Hendren remembers helping an older woman who saw her family only once every two or three years fly to Alaska to visit her children.
"It was like Christmas for her," Hendren said. "She never thought she would get to do that."
Hendren said her role as guardian was to work with clients to achieve their dreams. She thinks one of the most rewarding parts of the job is passing off her role as guardian to clients during restoration hearings.
“It’s just the happiest thing that can happen, because they have learned to manage their illness,” Hendren said.
Hendren endorsed Richardson after announcing her retirement. She said she had hoped Richards would succeed. Instead, she said she regularly receives calls from former clients and family members expressing concerns about the way Richards runs the office.
“It’s not that I haven’t liked retirement,” Hendren said. “These individuals have asked me to come back, and I want to come back. ... I felt that because I did endorse Cathy Richards four years ago, I felt obligated to correct that because I felt responsible."
Richards said she has received no formal complaints and instead has received frequent compliments about her work.
Hendren wants to return the office to the way it was when she served. She disapproves of Richards’ use of a secretary, saying it inhibits clients from speaking directly speaking to the administrator. Although Hendren used an office voicemail at night during her term, she does not agree with Richards’ use of an office voicemail during the day.
“I think that if you are working with people with disabilities, it’s always important that they always have a live voice,” Hendren said.
Hendren plans to focus most on personal connections and availability. She said she knew her clients well and could name their backgrounds and diagnoses off the top of her head. While computer systems can store notes, Hendren emphasized the importance of knowing key information about clients, such as specific events that might mark a tragic event in a person's life.
“They all have their own lives and stories,” Hendren said. “It’s all about knowing the person and them knowing you."
Although Hendren sees Richards' use of Skype as positive, she doesn't think it should replace visiting them in their primary environment.
“Seeing them and seeing the facility is just very important because you have absolute total control over a person’s life when you are a guardian,” Hendren said. “You see where they live, what doctors they use, what medications they take.”
Hendren said either she or her deputy would continue to visit clients four times a year as she did in the role previously. If clients lived too far away, she would put to use a recent law that allows public administrators to transfer cases to other counties to better serve their needs.
Hendren also has worked as a certified public accountant and as a member of the Missouri Public Service Commission. She said that background would reduce the use of an attorney in the courtroom, cut down on court time and reduce office spending. She also would resume her practice of filing tax returns for the office.
“I would do them simply because that’s a field of my expertise, and I love doing it,” Hendren said.
Hendren hopes voters understand the role of the public administrator, but she doesn't want the office to become more public. She worries that might embarrass clients and hinder their privacy.
Voters should contact hospitals, agencies and facilities that serve clients and get their opinion on who should serve as public administrator, Hendren said.
“If they say Cathy has done a great job, then that’s the way to go,” Hendren said. “If they think things were better under me, then hopefully they will vote for me.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.