Elder Care Reforms OKd

Times Staff Writer

The Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved an ambitious proposal to strengthen oversight of professional conservators who manage the lives and finances of adults unable to care for themselves.

The legislation may face stiffer resistance next week, when the Appropriations Committee is planning to consider the cost of reforming the state's troubled system for protecting incapacitated adults.

Sponsored by the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), the bill would license and audit professional conservators, increase court supervision of their work and set up an ombudsman program to investigate conservatorship-related complaints.

"The system is failing the people it was set up to protect," he said. "These problems could well increase exponentially as the baby boomers age."

Jones' measure is the most comprehensive put forth so far in response to abuses detailed in a four-part series published by The Times in November.

Conservatorship, which began as a way for families to help frail, failing relatives, has become a growing business in California as the population has aged and families have dispersed.

Today, about 500 professional conservators operate in the state, caring for at least 4,600 people and managing $1.5 billion in assets.

The Times' investigation found that professionals often gain legal authority over elderly men and women without their consent, swiftly taking control of their lives and finances.

Some conservators neglected or isolated their wards and ran up excessive fees. Others used their power over seniors' estates to benefit themselves, their relatives or their friends. Probate courts, which appoint conservators and are charged with monitoring their work, overlooked incompetence, neglect and outright theft.

Jones said his legislation reflected the need to address a wide range of flaws -- quickly.

The bill, AB 1363, would set up a state board under the Department of Consumer Affairs to license professional conservators and to discipline those who violate ethical or legal standards.

It would require conservators to file reports to courts sooner after being appointed and twice as often, submitting documentation to support how they say they have spent wards' money.

It would tighten rules on emergency conservatorships, which The Times found were surprisingly common and were often established without notice to the proposed ward. Jones has proposed curtailing the circumstances under which judges could waive such notice and requiring court investigators to visit wards either before judges ruled on their cases, or within 48 hours after.

In addition, the measure would require the Judicial Council of California, which sets policy for courts, to develop state standards for conservators' fees, collect data about conservatorships and create programs to train probate court officials. The Judicial Council also would be required to devise a program for helping nonprofessionals become conservators for their loved ones.

The bill's complexity prompted Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) to voice concern that Jones was moving too fast, before courts and regulatory agencies could analyze the proposal thoroughly. He abstained when the judiciary voted to pass the bill, 6 to 0.

Daniel Pone, senior attorney for the Judicial Council, cautioned against creating requirements that would overtax courts, impose expense on wards or penalize conservators who were not abusive.

So far, two other reform bills have been introduced, both more limited in scope than Jones'. One proposes uniform standards for conservators' fees. The other would add additional safeguards when conservators move to sell wards' homes.

Jones said piecemeal approaches have failed in the past.

"We've got a very serious problem on our hands," he said. "We need to move thoughtfully, but quickly, to reform the system."

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