Thursday, April 16, 2015
Courts, Lawmakers Working on Protection for Weakest Citizens
Judges and lawyers responsible for Clark County’s flawed guardianship system acknowledge they have a problem.
They just say they’re powerless to fix it.
Guardianship Commissioner Jon Norheim and his supervisor, Family Court Judge Charles Hoskin, say they lack the money, staff and authority to prevent the financial exploitation of county wards detailed Sunday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
But in Washoe County, a single judge is credited with making sweeping reforms that cleaned up a similarly troubled guardianship system.
And Nevada lawmakers are considering three reform bills that are opposed by professional private guardians but supported by advocates for the elderly and the incapacitated.
EASY TO BEAT SYSTEM
Becoming a private professional guardian in Nevada is as simple as showing a certification from the Center for Guardianship Certification, a not-for-profit organization based in Harrisburg, Pa.
The requirement is that hard to meet, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2010.
Undercover agents for the investigative agency used false background information on applications to the Center for Guardianship Certification. They were not required to give a Social Security number, nor was there any kind of background credit check, the agency reported.
The agents were certified after providing fake ID and passing the center’s written test.
Then, as now, Nevada doesn’t license or even do its own background checks on professional private guardians. If it did, it might have had reason to question the qualifications of Patience Bristol, who worked in the office of private guardian Jared Shafer while going through Chapter 13 bankruptcy from 2005 to 2010.
Bristol became a certified private guardian and opened her own office in 2012. She is now serving three to eight years in prison for stealing at least $200,000 in money and property from four of her wards. Prosecutors said much of the money went to cover major gambling losses.
In a curious foreshadowing of the Bristol case, the 2010 GAO report referred to an unidentified case manager in a Nevada county’s public guardian office who started her own guardianship business and was accused of stealing at least $200,000 from wards’ accounts to support a gambling problem. Details in that case — some three years before Bristol’s arrest — were not available from the GAO.
Hoskin and Norheim acknowledge Nevada’s guardianship system is especially vulnerable to exploitation by someone like Bristol, who worked for the county from 1998 until 2003.
Someone who knows the intricacies of the system “would have a much better idea of how to work the system than somebody who didn’t have that background,” Hoskin said.
Blatant “conversion” — theft — brought Bristol the attention of a bank investigator who blew the whistle.
Prosecuting a guardian who is exploiting a ward by overcharging for legitimate services can be far more tricky, said attorney Michael Olsen, who represents one of Bristol’s victims, Kristina Berger.
As in other cases examined by the Review-Journal, Berger’s guardians ignored the state’s minimal requirement of an annual report to the court showing spending from a ward’s estate. Neither Shafer nor Bristol ever made a report during Berger’s five-year guardianship, and the court never noticed.
“We do have some rules on the books that also need to be better enforced,” Olsen said. “I think we need to continue to develop the statutes.”
Olsen, who has been a practicing family and elder law attorney in Las Vegas for more than a decade, would like to see other changes to better protect the vulnerable, such as an increase in court monitoring. He would end the practice of letting guardians finance legal battles with the families of their wards with the ward’s own money.
Even without those reforms, Bristol’s prosecution could set a precedent, Olsen said.
“I would like to see (Las Vegas police) continue to be increasingly diligent in looking out for the seniors and the vulnerable who have been taken advantage of and prosecuting those cases criminally,” Olsen said. “I think that will have more of a deterrent effect than anything we can do on the civil side.”
MORE OVERSIGHT NEEDED
Hoskin and Norheim say they need more money to adequately oversee the county’s guardianship system, including additional funding for the public guardian’s office, adding more compliance officers to monitor guardians and funding a volunteer program to represent wards in court.
“We only need private guardians because the public guardian’s office is inadequately funded,” Norheim said.
But one Nevada county has dramatically reduced exploitation by guardians without having more money to spend.
Washoe County District Judge David Hardy said he recognized the need to better protect wards in his early days as a private practice elder law attorney.
“The guardianship system itself contemplates that one person will be in charge of another person’s finances. When that happens, you’re going to have a small percentage of people who serve themselves,” Hardy said. “It’s easy to take from somebody who can’t defend himself or herself.”
Now Washoe County’s chief judge, Hardy worked with his colleagues to develop protocols giving wards more of a say in their treatment and narrowing the authority of guardians.
“In the old days, we used to appoint the guardian and then expect that the guardian would show up a year later with the accounting,” Hardy said. “Sometimes they would, sometimes they wouldn’t.”
With the help of a federal grant, the Washoe courts and the Reno-based National Center for State Courts recently completed a study that recommended reorganization and reallocation of resources, making it possible to hire a guardianship compliance officer to better monitor cases without additional funding, Hardy said.
Nevada advocates for the elderly credit Hardy’s reforms with greatly reducing complaints about his county’s guardianship system.
“It’s very easy for these cases to fall through the cracks unless we have the resources within the court to monitor those cases,” Hardy said. “In Washoe County, we have a thousand guardianship wards that are subject to orders, yet we focus every single week on new appointments. We grow this backlog of cases where there are living, vibrant people. And we focus our resource attention on the appointment, and too often neglect the appointment monitoring and supervision of cases.”
While critics of the guardianship system say much can be done at the county level, they also are pushing state lawmakers to adopt major reforms.
The Legislature is considering three bills pertaining to Nevada guardianships. Senate Bill 262, sponsored by Sen. Becky Harris, R-Las Vegas, would remove the requirement for a guardian to be a resident of the state. Assembly Bill 9, from the Legislative Committee on Health Care, would prohibit the courts from granting summary administration of a ward’s estate if that person is suffering from any form of dementia.
Assembly Bill 325, sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle, D-Sparks, which would require annual licensing and regular audits of private professional guardians, appears to be facing the biggest fight — from the private professional guardians.
In a letter to lawmakers, Shelly Register, a private professional guardian in Sparks, warned that if AB325 passes, it is “likely to put private professional guardians out of business.”
But Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, is helping push the bill.
“We have regulatory bodies for things such as barbers,” Buckley said. “But not have a similar body when we’re talking about the lives of vulnerable seniors?”
Buckley, a former Assembly speaker, said the system totally lacks oversight of private guardians.
“We need someone looking into the practices of guardians,” Buckley added. “We have seniors who are being told where to live, how much of their own funds they will receive. We need proper oversight to make sure these people aren’t being exploited.”
Sally Ramm, an elder rights attorney with the state’s Elder Protective Services, said current court oversight isn’t enough. She argues that the need for licensing, monitoring and oversight is crucial as the industry expands along with the number of older Americans needing help.
Ramm echoed Hoskin and Hardy in saying courts need more investigative powers as well as the funding to put it to use.
Adding a licensing aspect to guardians would both enforce more restrictions on guardians and give people another avenue to file official complaints against guardians, she said.
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Courts, lawmakers working on protection for weakest citizens