Guardianships Still Abused, Survey Finds

Times Staff Writer

Critical shortcomings remain in the way state courts -- including those in California -- oversee adult guardianships, according to a national survey released today by AARP.

Despite persistent reports of abuse and neglect, many courts still do not verify how guardians manage wards’ money or visit wards to check on their welfare, the survey found. In courts across the nation, a lack of funds hinders the ability to supervise guardianships effectively.

“Without effective monitoring, guardianship can become a human-rights gulag,” said Charles Sabatino, director of the American Bar Assn.’s Commission on Law and Aging, which helped conduct the survey.


The survey results showed “what a long way we have to go to make monitoring real,” he added. “And the wards bear the brunt of the inadequacies.”

As Americans live longer and the over-65 population expands, scrutiny of state systems for protecting incapacitated adults is intensifying.

In California, probate courts appoint conservators to manage the affairs of adults -- most of them elderly or infirm -- deemed unable to care for themselves. Probate courts are also supposed to supervise conservators, making sure they act in wards’ best interests.

But a four-part series published by The Times in November described numerous instances in which conservators neglected, exploited or isolated those in their care. Probate courts overlooked incompetence, mistreatment and outright theft.

Last year, AARP’s Public Policy Institute surveyed guardians, judges, elder-law attorneys and others to ask how courts in their jurisdictions oversaw guardianships, modeling the questions on a survey conducted in 1991.

The 387 responses, spread over 43 states and the District of Columbia, showed that practices continue to vary widely from state to state and even court to court.


Still, the survey found that almost all states now have statutes requiring guardians to submit regular reports on wards’ finances and care and that courts are increasingly insistent that guardians live up to filing laws.

Far fewer courts, however, go beyond a cursory paper review, a finding that Naomi Karp, a senior advisor with the Public Policy Institute and the survey’s coauthor, called troubling.

More than one-third of respondents said their courts had no one to verify or investigate reports submitted by guardians.

About 40% of those surveyed said their jurisdictions also had no one assigned to visit wards, perhaps the best way to catch signs of abuse or neglect.

Such limitations afflict California, though it was the first state to employ investigators to act as courts’ eyes and ears. The Times found that growing caseloads and stagnant budgets had eroded investigators’ effectiveness, sometimes leaving them months or years behind on visits.

California lawmakers are considering several measures to tighten court oversight of conservatorships, requiring investigators to visit wards more often and subjecting conservators’ reports to random audits. Though the proposals have won broad support in principle, they are struggling to win funding in this year’s budget.

Elsewhere, efforts to improve guardianship monitoring have faced similar hurdles, said Erica Wood, assistant director of the American Bar Assn.’s Commission on Law and Aging and the survey’s other coauthor.

Several recommendations in the new survey -- such as making better use of technology and using volunteers to augment reviews by court staff -- are holdovers from the first one, largely unfulfilled after 15 years.

“It’s pretty sad, really,” Wood said. “We hoped courts would take them and run with them.”