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Judge orders medical evaluation of ailing blues singer Etta James

February 24, 2011 |  1:49 pm

Etta JamesA Riverside County Superior Court judge on Thursday ordered an immediate medical evaluation of R&B great Etta James after her son’s attorney said the health of the singer, who is receiving care at her Riverside home, could be in “serious danger.”

James’ husband and sons have been locked in a court dispute over control of the singer's $1 million in savings, with all parties involved saying their only concern is to ensure that James receives proper medical care.

A confidential report by a court investigator raised concerns about the quality of James’ care, however, including a procedure to insert a feeding tube into her stomach being conducted at her home, her son’s attorneys told the judge during the hearing.

The attorneys for James’ son, Donto James of Moreno Valley, also questioned the quality of care being provided by a doctor who lives at the singer’s home and provides around-the-clock care.

"I think we should get a restraining order and get her out of there," Joseph E. Deering Jr. said of the doctor. "This woman is there 24 hours a day...."

James has dementia and is undergoing treatment for leukemia, requiring continuous care for a fiery 72-year-old performer, best known for her bluesy riffs and ballads, including "At Last" and "Tell Mama."

The family court fight began last year when James' husband of 41 years, Artis Mills, filed legal action to have three of the singer's financial accounts declared community property. Doing so would grant him access to the money and allow him to pay for her medical care, he said.

The petition is opposed by Donto James, who the singer granted power of attorney in 2008, to be used if she became incapacitated. Donto, who has a different father, said he does not object to money spent on James' healthcare but that he wants an independent administrator to handle her finances "to avoid present and future family conflict and discrepancies.''

Mills, court records show, is arguing that Etta James was not of "sound mind and judgment" when she granted power of attorney to her son.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Cahraman on Thursday ordered an independent medical team to examine James and review medical charts of her past care. The judge also froze James’ bank accounts, but did set aside $30,000 to ensure that she receives proper medical care until the next hearing on April 4.

Mills estimates that he spends about $30,000 a month on the singer's medical care at their home in Riverside's Woodcrest community.

"We know for sure that it’s real expensive medical care. That may be OK, if it’s really good," the judge said.

James moved to suburban Riverside in the late 1980s from Los Angeles.

In recent years, James has been in and out of the hospital. According to a declaration filed by her attending physician in November, her health continues to deteriorate.

James has a form of dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease, combined with symptoms of organic brain syndrome, although she does recognize her husband and children, the court records stated. She also was recently diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia and is undergoing chemotherapy, according to the court declaration.

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-- Phil Willon in Riverside 

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