Five social workers in the Los Angeles public guardian's office control the lives of 1,000 elderly people. The office also controls $200 million in assets and has run a hardware store, a plant nursery and an oil-drilling operation owned by its wards.
It is the largest and one of the oldest public guardianship offices in the country, and its critics say it now turns away cases and favors moneyed wards over the indigent.
Both criticisms are true to some extent, the public guardian says. His office is swamped and his budget is constantly under threat.
"We don't want any more. We have too many," said Gordon Treharne, the Los Angeles public guardian. "Everyone thinks we should expand and we're not. We're retrenching."
And it's happening all across the country.
Faced with a crush of elderly who either outlive their money or live far from family, states are setting up--and loading up--public guardians as a catchall for those who have no one else.
While numbers remain unclear, an Associated Press study of more than 2,200 guardianship cases around the country shows that 2.3% of the 300,000 to 400,000 people under guardianship may be wards of public guardians.
The public guardians take direct control of the lives of old people and make the decisions any guardian makes--where the ward will live, whether to pull the plug on life-support systems, how much money is spent on groceries.
"Public guardianship is brand-new by government definitions," said James Scannell, the public guardian in San Francisco. "We're in our infancy. We're really just evolving now to meet the needs of the community."
Meeting those needs is becoming increasingly difficult. In Phoenix, caseworkers have time to visit their wards only four times a year. Tennessee's new public guardian's office took in 37 people in the first two months and expects to reach 300 in the first year.
Thirty-two states have some form of public guardianship, and almost all are finding big problems that are getting worse.
Some public guardians have been indicted, others criticized for neglecting wards or "warehousing" them in nursing homes.
In California, a grand jury blamed the Santa Clara County public guardian's office for the 1985 starvation death of 79-year-old John Nagle. The office had not seen the ward in two years. The grand jury's report helped establish new guidelines for the office.
Illinois Case Reported
The public guardian for Du Page County, Ill., pleaded guilty to charges of official misconduct and theft last year after he was accused of investing wards' money for his own benefit. He was ordered to repay $12,600.
John M. Hartman, a former Bay County, Mich., public guardian, admitted in 1985 that he embezzled $129,506 from some of his 75 wards. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Las Vegas' public guardian, Jared Shafer, has drawn fire for making real estate investments with partners in the law firm he chose to handle most of his office's business.
In North Dakota, wards are placed in the hands of part-time public administrators, appointed officials with no training, staff or money to care for their charges. In one case, a public administrator put two wards in the care of a friend who charged each estate $2,000 a month for room and board.
"When you don't have the appropriate staff, you get into these binds," said Verdine Dunham, president of the California Assn. of Public Administrators. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night . . . (worried) that I haven't done something that will come back to haunt me."
Added Phoenix public guardian Dean Trebesch: "There's more realization now that the power that goes with guardianship is so awesome and the loss of rights so awesome that we'd better make darn sure we do it right."
While some social service professionals hail the care and services provided by public guardians, other experts point to the problems of handling so many with so few.
In Phoenix, for example, so many are now under the umbrella of the public guardian that caseworkers handle 75 wards apiece. San Francisco has 315 wards and two caseworkers. Alameda County, which includes the city of Oakland, has frozen its caseload at 450 with just three caseworkers. Alaska's six public guardians handle 280 cases. Four guardianship officers in Kentucky have an average caseload of 150 each.
In Portland, Ore., five people handle 180 wards with a $180,000 annual budget. "We're stretched thin," said Jeff Brandon, deputy public guardian. "There's probably 500 cases that are not even sent here, because they figure they'll get a 'no' from us."
In Los Angeles, the caseload breaks down to more than 200 wards per worker.
"The reality is with those caseloads we're not getting out there very often," Treharne said.
Few guidelines exist for running public guardianship offices, but some experts have suggested limits.