Senate Aging Committee Examines Ways to Strengthen Guardianship Programs

At the hearing, the Committee released its annual report, which stems from a year-long investigation of ways to improve the guardianship system

Click HERE for a copy of Senator Collins’ opening statement

Click HERE for a copy of Senator Casey’s opening statement

 

Click HERE for a copy of the Aging Committee’s report on guardianships

 

Click HERE for a one-pager and HERE for the bill text of the Guardianship Accountability Act


Washington, D.C. — The Senate Aging Committee has been alerted of appalling stories from Americans across the country regarding abusive guardianships that take advantage of vulnerable individuals. These guardians are entrusted with significant power over those who rely on their support. Their authority can range 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.

 

Although guardians provide a valuable and essential service for many Americans in need of support and protection, unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight have used guardianship proceedings to obtain control of vulnerable individuals and have then used that control to liquidate assets and savings for their own personal benefit.

 

Today, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, examined this issue and released the Committee’s report in a hearing titled, “Ensuring Trust: Strengthening State Efforts to Overhaul the Guardianship Process and Protect Older Americans.” This hearing is the culmination of a year-long examination of ways in which the system can be improved to better protect individuals subject to these and similar arrangements from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  The bipartisan report addresses three key areas – the importance of guardianship oversight, alternatives to guardianship, and the need for improved data – and makes 13 recommendations.

 

As a result of the Committee’s investigation, Senators Collins and Casey announced during the hearing that they are introducing the Guardianship Accountability Act. This bipartisan legislation would promote information sharing among courts and local organizations as well as state and federal entities, encourage the use of background checks and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and expand the availability of federal grants to improve the guardianship system. 

 

“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 Senator Collins.  “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.” 

 

“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,” said Senator Casey. “This is why Sen. 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.”

 

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. Today’s hearing is a continuation of the Committee’s longstanding effort to bring awareness and prevention to the financial exploitation of older Americans. 

 

The Committee heard testimony today from four experts on guardianship who offered their insight on ways 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 Maine’s Adult Protect Services and public guardianship program. Ms. Hamm discussed Maine Uniform Probate Code (UPC) enacted during the most recent state legislative session. The Maine UPC will go into effect in July of next year and establishes the private guardians’ duty 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 SeniorLAW Center in Pennsylvania, described the work her organization does to address 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.

 

Barbara Buckley, Executive Director at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, discussed the steps that her state has taken since 2014 to better protect individuals under guardianship. In 2015, the Nevada Supreme Court created a Guardianship Commission to examine the guardianship system and recommend reforms.  Ms. Buckley explained 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.

 

Click HERE to read the witnesses’ testimonies.