The US Senate’s Special Committee on Aging announced a hearing for March 30 on guardianships, a judicial process dogged by scattershot rules, restrictive rights, and scant oversight.
The hearing is intended to allow senators to hear from those affected by guardianships, potentially pointing the way to an overhaul of the system.
A Bloomberg Law investigation published this month, In the Name of Protection, explored the dark world of adult guardianships, where people placed under court-ordered control lose many of their rights while reporting to guardians rarely required to be formally trained or certified.
In the worst abuses, guardians have stolen millions of dollars while depriving the so-called “protected person” of their rights to make decisions on everything from entering contracts to buying property to marrying. It’s the same legal process that pop star Britney Spears fought to escape.
Next week’s hearing is entitled Guardianship and Alternatives: Protection and Empowerment.
Guardianships are run by states, and each state has its own rules. But experts and those affected by them told Bloomberg Law the Senate committee can push for changes so that the system operates under more uniform rules nationwide. Guardianships should be seen as a final resort, they say, not the first option.
“Once a person is in guardianship, it’s like stepping in quicksand – the harder one tries to get out, the quicker the person sinks,” said Elaine Renoire, a director with the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse. “The best way to avoid guardianship abuse is to avoid guardianship.”
Renoire is among those supporting a uniform guardianship code that would be adopted by every state. Thus far, just a few states have done so.
Erica Wood, the former assistant director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, said a vital reform would be to have legal counsel represent people every time someone files a petition for guardianship. Such a requirement is now rare across the US. Wood, too, supports “a much more full-fledged examination of less restrictive options” to guardianship before any court order.
Julie Kegley, senior staff attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office, said her office supports changes such as having federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, train judges on the harms of guardianships.
Morgan Whitlatch, a director with the Center for Public Representation public interest law firm, said the federal government “must simultaneously and equally invest in strategies that encourage states and territories to divert their constituents away from guardianship and court systems and towards less restrictive options.”
The office of U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, didn’t respond to two interview requests Thursday.
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