When the US Senate Special Committee on Aging gathers Thursday to examine the nation’s fractured guardianship system, one prime focus will be to find ways to eliminate unnecessary guardianships by turning to less onerous options.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the committee chairman, said that even after Britney Spears’ fight to escape her conservatorship attracted global attention, “there are still countless families across the nation fighting against exploitative or abusive guardianships with little recourse.”
This week’s hearing, Casey said, will explore ways to help those in need without always turning to court-ordered guardianships.
“The Aging Committee will examine the Nation’s patchwork guardianship system and explore alternatives to guardianships to protect Americans’ civil rights while getting them the support they need,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg Law.
A Bloomberg Law investigation published this month revealed the cost of unnecessary guardianships: fraud, abuse, and a system that limits the rights of adults to make their own decisions while handing control to guardians who are rarely certified or regulated. Another investigation, by WLRN in Miami, exposed questionable real estate transactions in a county guardianship program.
One group, Disability Rights Texas, refers to guardianships as “civil death,” saying they “not only remove a person’s ability to choose where they want to live, what doctor they want to visit, where they work, or how they spend their money, but they can often be as restrictive as limiting what a person wears, what they eat, or who they talk to.”
Those who find themselves under overly restrictive adult guardianships sometimes take years to escape the system.
In Indiana, a teenager who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a car accident remained under guardianship for years even after marrying, having a child, and gaining work. He needed permission for everything from essentials for his daughter to the type of car he could drive. In Georgia, a mother put her daughter with Asperger’s syndrome under guardianship only to have the judge improperly revoke her right to vote and limit her spending – and threaten the mother with jail time. In Indiana, a woman with autism just ended her guardianship after a six-plus-year journey in which her former guardian questioned the family’s spending while running up steep bills.
Less Restrictive Option
Guardianships are governed by states, but each state has its own rules, so no standard system limits the number of cases guardians can handle. Some take on hundreds of cases at a time. Guardians manage more than $50 billion in assets for those they supervise, experts conservatively estimate.
Across the US, disability rights lawyers, American Bar Association veterans, and state officials say guardianships should be a last resort. Instead, they say, adults with disabilities or impairments should more often enter a system called “supported decision making.”
Under this process, adults retain the right to make their own decisions – while turning to a network of supporters when they need counsel on their relationships, their healthcare, their living arrangements, their jobs, or other matters.
Their supporters could be family members, friends, co-workers, lawyers, or others.
Ruby Campos, a Texas woman who was under guardianship until last year, said she has such a network. She now feels empowered to make her own choices.
“At the end of the day, it’s my decision,” Campos said in an interview. “I make some mistakes every now and then. If my WiFi gets cut off, that’s on me. But we’re healing.”
At this week’s hearing, “Guardianship and Alternatives: Protection and Empowerment,” the committee will hear from witnesses including a licensed therapist, guardianship reform advocate, state guardian attorney, and developmental disabilities director.
Casey has pressed for years for a system overhaul, examining financial exploitation of guardianships in 2018 and, in 2021, joining Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), in urging federal agencies to improve oversight and seek data on state guardianship systems.
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