Thursday, March 30, 2017

Probate Court Considers Added Protections To Curb Theft By Court-Appointed Guardians

The state's top Probate Court administrator said Monday that new reforms are needed to protect the elderly and mentally ill from abuse.

Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim and lawmakers said more needs to be done to prevent fraud and deception by corrupt court-appointed conservators. At a press conference and hearing Monday they spoke in support of a reform bill moving through the legislature.

"We need to root out as many of those bad apples ... as we can," said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, vice-chair of the legislature's judiciary committee.

Conservators appointed by state probate courts are handling financial matters for an estimated 20,000 elderly, disabled and mentally ill Connecticut residents with assets of more than $350 million, probate officials said Monday.

Preventing abuse by these court-appointed conservators — some of whom have stolen tens of thousands of dollars from the elderly and mentally ill people they swore to protect — is the goal of the probate reform bill.

"There is no more important responsibility ... than the duties of a conservator," Knierim said Monday.

He said that the vast majority of Connecticut conservators are honest and dedicated to providing their charges with everything from housing, to medical care and nutrition, in addition to handling financial matters.

Proposed reforms include random state audits of conservator accounts and tougher ethical standards.

Knierim said in the past five years, the probate system has seen a 58 percent increase in the number of mental health cases requiring conservators.

This isn't the first effort to reform the probate system. Knierim said legislation was passed in 2007 to give probate judges authority to order audits of questionable conservator accounts.

The new legislation has been triggered in part by recent high-profile cases of conservators stealing money from the people they were appointed to help.

Last August, a 67-year-old disabled man from Wethersfield named John Fritz received a $10,000 settlement of a lawsuit against a court-appointed conservator. Michael Schless, a retired lawyer from Newington now living in Florida, pleaded guilty to first-degree larceny for stealing money from Fritz. Schless, 78, received a 10-year-suspended sentence and had to surrender his law license.

Fritz, whose family began noticing in 2012 that his finances were being drained away, has recovered $60,000 of the money taken by Schless. The judge in the case said when sentencing Schless that the scandal showed "the court system is not perfect and this is a dishonorable day for the court system."

At Monday's hearing, one harsh critic of Connecticut's probate courts testified against the proposed reform. Jeryl Gray, who claims her mother has been financially abused by the conservator system, argued that a failure to enforce existing laws has led to "extreme atrocities" against people like her mother. Gray said passing a new "sham bill" wouldn't change a corrupt system.

If passed by the General Assembly, the new legislation would take effect Jan. 1, 2018. Knierim said the 15-20 random audits each year are expected to cost $30,000.

The Democratic co-chairs of the legislature's judiciary committee, Rep. William Tong of Stamford and Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, both spoke in support of reform.

"The risk of abuse is too high," Tong said, "and we must take steps to make sure that conservators … are held to the highest ethical and fiduciary standards."

Doyle said the closing in recent years of institutions caring for the mentally ill has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people with mental health issues needing the help of conservators.

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Probate Court Considers Added Protections To Curb Theft By Court-Appointed Guardians

1 comment:

Minnie said...

You know what would curb theft? Arrests and convictions. That would curb theft.