Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Who Guards the Guardians? Part two

Guardianships are increasingly common, a trend typically attributed to an aging populace and scattered families.

In Texas, the number of guardianships grew 60 percent from 2011 to 2015. Nearly $3 billion in personal wealth is under control of guardians in Texas, according to one recent estimate from state researchers. 

But even those who oversee the system and write its laws are only recently coming around to a troubling fact: In much of Texas, there is nobody watching these cases.

Ten large Texas counties run their own guardianship systems, with legally trained probate judges, court-appointed investigators and visitors — employees or volunteers who check up on people under guardianship — to ensure that a guardianship is still necessary and isn’t being used as a tool for abuse or theft. Dallas County, where Rosamond had lived for most of her life, has such a system. But she was in Lubbock County when her son Phil went to court. Lubbock County reported having 1,425 guardianships in August 2015, ranking eighth in the state both in total guardianships and guardianships per capita. The county has no system to ensure that guardians file required annual reports on the person they’re looking after, nor staff to check for evidence of fraud.

In recent years Lubbock has come to epitomize the dangers of guardianship when nobody’s watching. As Rosamond Bradley recovered and tried in vain to have her rights restored, courts in Lubbock and nearby counties placed more than 50 people who did need protection in the care of strangers who lived hundreds of miles away, visited rarely, and walked off with their money. Lubbock has particularly weak oversight. Last fall, state investigators began a survey that is revealing a lack of accountability and potential for abuse all over Texas. Several years ago, Lubbock conducted a similar self-audit, but after briefly reckoning with its shortcomings, the county’s guardianship system appears as ill-equipped as ever.

What qualifies you to run a stranger’s life? In Texas, it’s a brief class followed by a 100-question test. Private guardianship is a small but growing profession, and Texas’ 358 certified guardians come from all backgrounds. Some are nurses or social workers. Others have little or no relevant experience.

Most guardianships, by far, are awarded to family members or friends. But if someone doesn’t have a family member nearby, or a judge decides the family is a risky choice, the court appoints a professional, typically paid from the life savings of the person they’re looking after. In Texas, 72 such professionals work within a state-run program in the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), with supervisors who review their work. Locally run programs in a few large counties employ dozens more, and around 50 active guardians are independent.

In 2005, [Former El Paso Probate Judge Max] Higgs began alerting lawmakers that the state had become far too permissive. He spread stories of elderly and disabled people living in squalid conditions, even after visits from Adult Protective Services. Lawmakers passed reforms that year, requiring licenses for professional guardians, among other changes.

Attorney Terry Hammond
In both rounds of reform, though, [Attorney Terry] Hammond says, lawmakers hardly touched the most basic troubles with guardianship. Texas, he says, still lacks a statewide safety net to make sure nobody slips through the cracks, and puts far too much authority in the hands of county judges who may not be qualified to make legal decisions. “This system may have been appropriate in 1845 or 1865 or even 1910,” Hammond says. “But it’s entirely inappropriate for the 21st century.”

Full Article and Source:
Who Guards the Guardians?


Betty said...

This is one of the best exposes I've seen on the problem. Thank you Texas Observer. Your hard work and heart shine brightly in this piece.

Jes said...

If I lived in Texas, I'd put my house up for sale and move.