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Gov. Signs Conservator Reform Bills

The laws, a reaction to system abuses, require licensing and more oversight of those who control money of adults under court order.

September 28, 2006|Jack Leonard And Robin Fields | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Heeding calls to overhaul California's troubled conservatorship system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday signed into a law a package of reform bills aimed at curbing abuse of elderly and disabled adults.

Administration officials hailed the measures as significant steps in preventing conservators from taking over the lives and finances of the state's most vulnerable adults without their knowledge or consent.

The laws strengthen oversight of professional conservators through a system of state licensure and also require greater supervision of their work by the judges who appoint them.

Conservators control the care and finances of adults, usually elderly, who have been deemed by probate courts to be incapable of caring for themselves or managing their finances.

The need for better oversight was highlighted in a Times series in November that described how some professional conservators were able to swiftly gain authority over seniors' affairs and, in some cases, steal their assets and isolate them from relatives and run up fees.

"There's something visceral, something at your gut level that tells you it is absolutely unacceptable that people who are the most vulnerable would be abused by those who are charged with their safekeeping," said Rosario Marin, secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, which wil license professional conservators.

Schwarzenegger's endorsement marks a significant victory for elder-rights activists who have campaigned for nearly two decades for improvements in the state's conservatorship system.

Scandals involving thefts by conservators have prompted sporadic efforts to increase regulation. But three previous governors vetoed legislation aimed at reform.

Earlier this year, another gubernatorial veto appeared possible when aides to the governor privately expressed objections to the bill that licenses conservators.

Each of the four reform bills included language that required all of the other bills to be signed for the package to be enacted. If one were vetoed, all four would die.

Minor amendments to the licensing measure along with other changes that reduced the reform package's costs helped pave the way for Wednesday's signature.

Conservatorship began as a way for relatives to help frail, failing family members. But it has become a growing business as the population has aged and families have dispersed, leaving some seniors with no one to care for them.

In California, about 500 professional conservators look after 4,000 clients, overseeing $1.5 billion in assets. Yet they had faced less regulation than hairdressers and guide-dog trainers.

Once considered a national model, California had been eclipsed in recent years by other states that have pioneered more aggressive oversight. Arizona, Washington, Florida, Alaska and Nevada already certify or license conservators.

But the latest reform allows California to reclaim its role as a pace-setter, said Sally Hurme, a board member of the National Guardianship Assn.

"The new advances put California back on top," she said. "They show Californians are committed to making the conservatorship process go forward on the right track."

Professional guardians from coast to coast are taking note. Hurme said the association, which is the main trade group for guardians, picked Orange County as the site for its annual conference next month partly because of national interest generated by California's changes.

Administration officials announced the governor's action at a news conference, standing alongside elder-rights advocates at the Sacramento office of AARP-California.

Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who wrote one of the four reform bills, cited several cases highlighted by The Times in which professional conservators appointed by the courts failed to conserve the savings of their elderly clients.

Among them was Emmeline Frey, a 93-year-old widow who lost more than $100,000 after a San Diego conservator used her son, a former car salesman turned financial advisor, to invest clients' money.

"These sorts of stories have led us to conclude that this system needs comprehensive reform," Jones said.

Frey died in 2004. But one of her close friends, Darleen Hellman, who battled Frey's conservator in court, said she believed that licensing of conservators was long overdue.

"It was a shock to me that they were just freelance and could put professional conservator on the letterhead and just go for it. There was nothing professional about it," she said.

This year's state budget contains no money for the courts to meet their new oversight obligations, which take effect in July 2007. Earlier estimates by the state courts put the costs at about $8.7 million a year.

But administration officials Wednesday said Schwarzenegger was committed to ensuring that the courts had enough funds to meet the requirements.

"By the governor signing this bill, he is four-square behind the changes that are embodied in them," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe, "and he will be four-square behind the resources required to implement them effectively and [in a] timely [fashion]."

Times staff writer Evelyn Larrubia contributed to this report.

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