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Guardianship abuses draw attention in Senate

December 13, 2007|Robin Fields | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After a string of chilling reports detailing abuse of the elderly, lawmakers and advocacy groups will unveil recommendations today to strengthen oversight of adult guardianships.

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging called for nationwide data collection on guardianship cases, mandatory quality standards for guardians and an infusion of federal funds to boost local court supervision programs.

"Seniors need more options, more rights, more protection at a national level than they are now receiving," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, the committee's top Republican.

A report by the committee and a study conducted by AARP and the American Bar Assn., also to be released today, set out a blueprint for making model practices now used by a few pioneering jurisdictions the norm nationwide.

The joint study showcases six programs -- from Tarrant County, Texas, to Broward County, Fla. -- that monitor guardianships with special vigilance.

Some have established teams to check on wards' assets and welfare. Several are creating computer programs to flag signs of trouble in reports filed by guardians, much as the Internal Revenue Service flags suspicious tax returns.

Their innovations show that effective oversight is more a matter of will than of money, said Naomi Karp, the study's co-author and the strategic advisor for AARP's Public Policy Institute.

"It's not really rocket science and it's not really expensive," Karp said. "In all cases, there's at least one person who's a real visionary who is dedicated to getting it done."

Issues related to adult guardianship are drawing increased attention as baby boomers age. America's over-65 population is expected to reach 55 million by 2020, and one out of eight in that age group has Alzheimer's disease, the AARP report said.

Every state has a system to protect adults no longer able to care for themselves. In California, probate courts appoint conservators -- usually family members, but sometimes paid professionals or county public guardians -- to manage wards' affairs.

Courts are supposed to make sure conservators act in wards' best interests, but a 2005 Los Angeles Times series showed that they often fail to do so, allowing some guardians to neglect or exploit those in their care.

Similar failures have surfaced elsewhere: Earlier this year, the son of the late New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor was charged criminally with looting her estate while acting as her guardian.

California officials tightened oversight of adult guardianships after The Times report, but only federal reform can produce uniform protections for vulnerable adults across the country, said Smith, who plans to introduce guardianship legislation next year.

"The obligation that we owe to older Americans is pretty obvious," he said.

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robin.fields@latimes.com

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