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EDITORIALS

Deserving of care

November 17, 2005

THE MISERY AND LOSS suffered by the old and ill in the "care" of private and public conservators in California is unconscionable. The Times' "Guardians for Profit" series this week was unsparing in its portrayal of an inhumane system tolerated by probate judges and elected officials. The question raised by the series, written by The Times' Evelyn Larrubia, Jack Leonard and Robin Fields, is who should do what to fix it?

No amount of remorse or legal action can restore the months and years the elderly lost in isolation and dependence while private conservators looted their retirement funds, sometimes legally. Nothing can bring back the inheritances of those afflicted with dementia who signed wills written by (and mostly for) their supposed caretakers.

What courts and elected officials can do is turn this abusive system into the honest guardianship it was meant to be. It won't be easy. But some fixes are so obvious that they can't be ignored.

First on the list is to require training and licensing for all conservators (except for those who are close relatives). Starting next year, conservators will need a college degree, experience and some training. But these standards are hardly sufficient. And the change will not affect most current conservators, who can go into business simply by paying a $385 registration fee with the state and obtaining a surety bond.

Once appointed by a probate judge in court hearings that resemble a legal assembly line, they control their charges' assets and lives. Their power is then near absolute, and their potential for profiting from the estates they oversee is high. Too many, as the series showed, are uneducated, incompetent and cruel toward their charges. It's a wonder that there are any who are compassionate, honest and efficient.

The state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the licensing of many other professions, should add conservators to its purview. A public disciplinary process for conservators should also be set up, separate from the courts.

The probate courts, which in theory choose conservators and oversee their work, are the underfunded, understaffed backwater of the judiciary. As the series showed, there is an appalling lack of judicial oversight of conservators. The county courts need to recalibrate their priorities and devote more time and resources to evaluating conservatorship requests as well as the complaints of conservatees and their families.

Los Angeles County supervisors bear the shame of cutting all funding from the Public Guardian's Office, which is meant to protect the ill elderly without close family or enough money to attract an outside conservator. The forgotten and ill-managed agency rejects most cases brought to its attention and provides scant oversight to the rest. Supervisors restored a measly $1.1 million to the office and appointed a task force only after The Times' reporting was well underway.

That is the merest beginning. The county's frailest elderly deserve a guardian to which elected officials would be willing to consign their parents.

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