Laws to protect seniors and dependent adults from abuse by court-appointed conservators are under threat as California lawmakers seek painful cuts to close the state's $15.2-billion budget deficit.
The laws were part of a sweeping reform package signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger two years ago after a Los Angeles Times series had exposed theft, abuse and negligence by some professional conservators appointed to look after seniors.
State senators in a key legislative committee recently recommended suspending some of the reforms for a year, thereby saving $17.4 million. The money was intended to help probate courts improve supervision of conservators.
If Assembly members back the move, it will delay funding for the reforms for the second consecutive year. Last year, the governor vetoed the necessary funding, citing fiscal problems.
One of the authors of the reforms, Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), said he feared that further delays would leave more seniors and dependent adults vulnerable to abuse.
"I think that's a huge mistake and a huge step backward," Jones said. "A year is a very long time to allow conservators to potentially take advantage of the people they're supposed to be watching."
Conservators control the care and finances of adults, usually the elderly, whom probate courts deem to be incapable of caring for themselves or managing their own finances.
The Times' investigation, which was published in November 2005, found that professionals often gained legal authority over elderly men and women without their consent, swiftly taking control of their lives and finances. Some conservators neglected or isolated their wards and ran up excessive fees. Probate courts, meanwhile, overlooked incompetence, neglect and outright theft.
The following year, the Legislature passed the most extensive overhaul of the conservatorship system in three decades. Professional conservators were required to become licensed and courts were told to bolster their oversight of appointees.
Courts were required to increase the frequency of visits by investigators to people under conservatorship; to make their investigations more thorough; and to conduct more intensive checks of the financial reports from conservators that show how they are managing clients' money.
The licensing plan, which takes effect July 1, will be funded through license fees charged to conservators and other fiduciaries. But court officials say they desperately need additional state money to meet their reform requirements, which took effect last year.
"They are really struggling to maintain their staffing and do their best to implement as much of the [reforms] as they can," said Daniel Pone, an attorney who handles legislative issues for the state's Judicial Council, which sets policy for the courts.
In Los Angeles County, court officials said they have added staff but have been unable to meet the requirements to visit people under conservatorship at least once a year.
In Orange County, court officials said they hired five probate investigators and were fully implementing the reforms until the recent departure of four of the court's dozen investigators. The county can no longer meet the requirements without more money, said Alan Slater, chief executive of the Orange County Superior Court.
"My fear is that we're going to lose a good part -- if not most -- of this program," Slater said.
Conservatorship reform is one of many significant programs on the chopping block as lawmakers grapple with closing the huge budget gap. Though Schwarzenegger's proposed budget included the money for conservatorship reform, it also called for $246 million in unspecified cuts to the state's courts.
As senators sought ways to meet that target, they advocated a temporary halt of money for new court programs. State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), chair of the senate's Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said at a legislative hearing last week that their decisions affected even programs that "we like a lot and that we think are valuable."
Lawmakers from the two houses are in discussions on the court funding as they draft a final state budget.
Anthony Chicotel, a staff attorney at the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said that suspending the reforms could prove costly for some seniors.
"I really worry about the aged and disabled of California having adequate protections," he said. "It's disappointing."