Just days ago, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held an afternoon hearing in the Senate Dirksen Office Building to alert Congress to appalling stories gathered across the nation regarding abusive guardianships that are taking advantage of vulnerable older adults. At this hearing the Senate Aging Committee also released its annual report that takes a look at an examination of guardianship arrangements including research and recommendations on ways to improve the nation’s guardianship system.
Although guardians provide a valuable and essential service for many older Americans, from deciding where an individual will live and when to seek medical care to choosing if family members are allowed to visit and how to spend retirement savings, unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight have used legal guardianship proceedings to obtain control of vulnerable individuals and have then used that power to liquidate assets and life-time savings for their own personal gains.
Last April, the Committee held the first hearing in a two-part series this year on the abuse of power and exploitation of older Americans by guardians. The Committee also held a hearing on guardianship in 2016. The Nov. 28th hearing is a continuation of the Committee’s longstanding commitment to bring awareness and prevention to the financial exploitation of older Americans.
Putting the spotlight on unscrupulous guardians
U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, put the legislative spotlight on this important legal issue and released the Committee’s 34-page report at the Wednesday hearing titled, “Ensuring Trust: Strengthening State Efforts to Overhaul the Guardianship Process and Protect Older Americans.”
The released Senate Aging Committee report is the culmination of a year-long examination of ways in which the legal system can be improved to better protect individuals subject to these and similar arrangements from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It addresses three key areas – the importance of guardianship oversight, alternatives to guardianship, and the need for improved data and it makes 13 recommendations.
“An estimated 1.3 million adults are under the care of guardians – family members or professionals – who control approximately $50 billion of their assets,” said Collins, in her opening statement. “Guardianship is a legal relationship created by a court that is designed to protect those with diminished or lost capacity. We found, however, that in many cases, the system lacks basic protections leaving the most vulnerable Americans at risk of exploitation,” she said.
“While most guardians act in the best interest of the individual they care for, far too often, we have heard horror stories of guardians who have abused, neglected or exploited a person subject to guardianship. As our report notes, there are persistent and widespread problems with guardianship arrangements nationwide,” says Casey in his opening statement. “This is why Senator Collins and I introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act to begin reforming the guardianship system to ensure the protection of seniors under guardian care from losing their rights, savings or possessions because a guardian abused their power,” he said.
Fixing the nation’s guardianship system
The Senate Aging Committee took testimony from four guardianship experts who gave their thoughts as to how to improve the system.
Cate Boyko, Senior Court Research Associate at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), explained that the state court data it collected revealed that none of the states was able to fully report all the information on guardianships they requested. They found that the most serious issues involved local court authority, lack of standardized reporting, and limited technology.
Bethany Hamm, Acting Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, provided background information on the state’s Adult Protect Services and public guardianship program. Hamm discussed Maine Uniform Probate Code (UPC) enacted during the state’s last legislative session. The Maine UPC takes effect in July of next year and requires private guardians to report annually on the condition of the adult and account for money and other property in guardians’ possession or subject to guardians’ control.
Karen Buck, Executive Director at the Pennsylvania-based SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit legal services agency, described the work her organization does to tackle issues such as guardianship through free legal representation, education, and advocacy for older Americans in Pennsylvania. She argued that guardianship remains an “important tool” to provide care for vulnerable seniors and therefore merits attention and reform.
Finally, Barbara Buckley, Executive Director at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, described the steps that her state has taken since 2014 to better protect individuals under guardianship. One year later, the Nevada Supreme Court created a Guardianship Commission to examine the guardianship system and recommend reforms, she said, detailing three significant areas of reform implemented in Nevada: the right to counsel, the protected person’s Bill of Rights and other statutory reforms, and the establishment of the Guardianship Compliance Office.
As a result of the Senate Aging Committee’s work to examine issues surrounding guardianship, Collins and Casey announced at this hearing that they were introducing the Guardianship Accountability Act. This bipartisan legislation would promote information sharing among courts and local organizations as well as state and federal agencies, encourage the use of background checks and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and expand the availability of federal grants to improve the guardianship system.
Congress must act
One of the report’s recommended actions to strengthen guardianship arrangements is for courts to conduct criminal background checks on ALL prospective guardians. To aid states in this pursuit, Casey and Collin’s legislation, the “Guardianship Accountability Act,” promotes oversight of guardianship arrangements and encourages information sharing among government agencies and with other relevant organizations. This bill would also allow states to fund data collection on guardianship arrangements and conduct background checks on guardians.
According to the National Center for State Courts, there are approximately 1.3 million adults and an estimated $50 billion of assets under guardianship arrangements. State courts are tasked with monitoring guardianships in order to protect individuals subject to guardianship from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Despite this responsibility, few states are able to provide courts with adequate resources to monitor guardianships effectively and hold guardians accountable.
When the new Congress begins, hopefully this legislation will sail through both chambers of Congress and be quickly signed by President Donald Trump. We will see…
To get the Senate Aging Committee’s guardianship report, go to www.aging.
senate.gov. For a copy of the Guardianship Accountability Act, go to www.aging.
To watch the one-hour and 47-minute Senate Aging Committee hearing, go to www.aging.senate.gov/
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.