The Los Angeles County agency that serves as legal caretaker for some of the area's most vulnerable adults is so chronically short of funds that it takes months to act and turns away most of those sent to it for help, an audit released Wednesday said.
The report also blamed a top-heavy structure and a "problematic management culture" for undermining the agency's efficiency and morale.
The assessment, commissioned by the Board of Supervisors and conducted by a consulting firm, concluded that without added staff and an infusion of county money, the Office of the Public Guardian's probate conservatorship program will remain plagued by problems.
The public guardian acts as conservator for 505 mentally or physically incapacitated adults, many of them elderly and indigent. Typically, they have no one else to take care of them. The agency is appointed by probate courts to manage the adults' money and daily care.
Auditors said the program receives more than 700 referrals a year from social workers, hospitals and Adult Protective Services, more than it can quickly respond to.
The agency has reduced its backlog substantially in recent months, but elderly, ailing men and women often wait up to six months for their cases to be considered, let alone taken, the report found.
The public guardian turns down 84% of the referrals, the report said, but its staff typically supervises 75 to 90 cases apiece -- twice as many as staff members at some comparable agencies surveyed and too many for work to be done "in a timely or thorough manner," the auditors concluded.
Unlike most California counties, Los Angeles County has allocated no public funds to its probate conservatorship program since the early 1990s, even though the program is the biggest in the state. Most of its funds come from charging clients for services if they can afford it and from referral fees paid by certain hospitals and Adult Protective Services to receive priority for their cases.
The auditors recommended adding three employees, one to investigate potential cases and two to manage existing ones. The cost, estimated at $201,021, would be the hurdle, officials said.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" said Christopher Fierro, the agency's deputy director. "A lot of it depends on getting some funding."
Auditors also pointed to ineffective management as a source of the agency's difficulties. Employees complained that senior managers were unresponsive, out of touch with their day-to-day problems and did not keep regular hours, the report said.