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Task Force Urges Reform of State's Guardian System

Meeting for the first time since its creation last month, the panel backs key parts of a bill under consideration by the Senate.

February 04, 2006|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A task force set up by the state's chief justice to investigate conservatorships recommended reform Friday of California's system for protecting incapacitated adults, giving qualified backing to licensing professional conservators and protecting the elderly against the sudden loss of rights through emergency court procedures.

Meeting for the first time since its creation last month, the Probate Conservatorship Task Force unanimously supported key parts of a measure under consideration by the state Senate -- in concept.

But the panel of 16 judges and other court officials expressed concern that the Legislature was moving too fast and questioned who was going to pay for a number of the reforms under consideration.

Though the task force has no direct influence on legislation, its recommendations will be reviewed by the Judicial Council, which sets court policy statewide and decides whether to support or oppose bills that affect the courts.

During the meeting, task force members cited recent stories in The Times that highlighted abuse by conservators. "No politician wants to be the one accused at the next election of having increased bureaucracy," said Don E. Green, a commissioner who presides over probate cases in Contra Costa County.

"At this point, thanks to the L.A. Times, we've got the focus on the belief that sometimes regulation is a good thing."

San Diego County Superior Court Judge William H. Kronberger Jr. said he considered courts ill-equipped to adequately regulate professional conservators. That function, he said, would be better handled by another branch of government.

"Who is going to be responsible for looking at and regulating this industry?" Kronberger asked. "I really think that it's the executive branch."

Conservatorship began as a way for families to help frail, failing relatives but became a growing business in California as the population aged and families dispersed.

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

A Times investigation published in November found that professionals often gain legal authority over elderly men and women without their consent, swiftly taking control of their lives and finances. Some neglected or isolated their wards and ran up excessive fees. Meanwhile, probate courts overlooked incompetence, neglect and outright theft.

In reaction to those findings, state Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) introduced a reform package that easily passed the Assembly last week.

Task force members, appointed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, endorsed portions of Jones' bill but said they would make a more detailed appraisal once the measure is amended in the Senate.

The panel supported in concept a measure in Jones' bill that would require court investigators to visit adults before -- or within 48 hours of -- an emergency appointment, when conservators are granted temporary powers in advance of a hearing by a probate judge. Currently, investigators must visit adults subject to conservatorship only before a permanent conservator is appointed.

But task force members cautioned that their continued support would depend heavily on who would have to pay for all of Jones' reforms, which could cost more than $10 million a year.

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