Social workers in Aitkin County had a problem: They needed someone to make decisions for three mentally impaired people who could no longer manage their own affairs. So in 2003, the county made a public appeal in the local newspaper.
Paul and Frances Peterson, who had no experience as guardians or conservators, offered their services. What followed was a failure of the state's guardianship system that the county is still untangling seven years later.
Altogether, Aitkin County asked the Petersons to manage the affairs of five individuals, including three men with six-figure bank balances. After one of their wards died, the Petersons continued to write checks on his account, violating a court order and state law. The county had to give another wealthy ward $100 for food because the Petersons did not give him any of his money.
A district judge, who found numerous accounting problems, terminated their oversight in 2008 and subsequently ordered the Petersons to give back half of the $80,500 they paid themselves over five years. But the judge's order is on hold because an appeals court said there were no clear guidelines on how much the Petersons could charge for their work.
To family members and advocates, the inability of the courts to hold the Petersons accountable shows how the state needs new tools to crack down on poorly performing guardians and conservators, who are unlicensed and virtually unregulated in Minnesota.
"There has to be a form of professional standards, regulatory oversight or sanctioning ability," said Roberta Opheim, the state mental health ombudsman. "To me, it's about people abusing their power and authority granted to them for a humane purpose."
Opheim said there's no limit on how many wards a guardian can oversee. Some guardians have as many as 40 people under their control, she said.
Peterson blamed complaints on hostile social workers, difficult family members and the erratic behavior of one ward. He said he and his wife's big mistake was letting "ourselves get talked into doing it in the first place."
William Hohenauer, a former ward who spent four years trying to get his money back, accused the Petersons of raiding his accounts. "They went in and took what they wanted for themselves," he said. "The court let them get away with this."
On June 17, six days after his interview with the Star Tribune, Hohenauer died of cancer. He was still waiting for his money.
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Weak Rules Govern Guardians