Judges rarely name family members to assume guardianship of the elderly, and nearly never deny a request to declare them incapable.
Advocates have raised concerns about the inability to monitor the system that protects the nation's vulnerable and elderly, and those concerns are illustrated in the way Berks County Orphans Court tracks annual filings: by hand, in a desk ledger.
The county's hand tally is expected to be replaced with an electronic statewide case management system by year's end that will allow Pennsylvania - for the first time - to track a variety of issues, including elder abuse.
Currently, no one can say how many adults are under guardianship in Pennsylvania or how widespread elder abuse by a guardian is.
No one tracks guardian caseloads, which, if too large, can hamper the quality of care. And, as yet, there are no statutory standards for who can become a guardian nor any mechanisms to flag the unscrupulous.
Guardianship is the process of determining whether an adult - usually 60 and older - is capable of informed decision-making. If they're not, a guardian with broad authority over the individual is appointed.
Because an incapacitated adult loses those rights, which are then given to a family member or professional, guardianship raises a host of civil liberty concerns. But the lack of reliable data, despite decades of hand-wringing, and a growing list of bad actors threatens to significantly undermine the public's confidence in the guardian system.
It's an issue policymakers will need to soon confront, as the number of older adults in the U.S. is projected to nearly double over the next three decades.
Given the magnitude of potential harm by a system with little to no monitoring, the Reading Eagle sought to examine court practices, industry trends and areas in need of public scrutiny. Fifteen months ago the newspaper began examining annual caseload reports and court dockets in three counties: Berks, Chester and Philadelphia.
Information available in the dockets varies by county.
Accessing the dockets in Berks and Chester required multiple trips to the counties' orphans court to look up individual cases that were entered by hand into a database for analysis. The newspaper looked at records for 2016.
Among the newspaper's findings:
Statewide, court filings have risen at a quicker pace over the past two decades than the demographic most likely to be involved in an incapacitation case: those 60 and older, which grew more moderately.
Although Philadelphia, Montgomery and Allegheny counties had more cases in 2016, Berks had a higher rate per capita: 4.18 per 10,000 population. Philadelphia had a rate of 3.86 and Allegheny 2.55.
*Adult Protective Services, a hospital or nursing home filed two out of every three petitions in 2016 alleging incapacitation in Berks, Chester and Philadelphia.
*Philadelphia's professional guardians carry significantly heavier caseloads than the nationally recommended ratio of 1:20. From 2014 through 2016, the top 10 professional guardians in Philadelphia were appointed, on average, to 52 cases.
*Among the reviewed cases from Berks and Chester resolved in 2016, the courts declared every adult before them incompetent. Not a single petition was denied, a finding that troubled advocates.
*Of the 325 Philadelphia cases in which the judge made a finding on incapacitation in 2016, only two were denied. Everyone else was deemed incapacitated and a guardian was appointed.
*Adult Protective Services favors the appointment of professionals. In 2016, for example, Berks Area *Agency on Aging recommended a professional guardian in 92 percent of their petitions, although the dockets in half of these identified family members living in the state.
*Despite the widespread belief that family members more frequently serve as guardian, professionals were more prevalent. For example, in Philadelphia in 2016, 73 percent of the appointments were held by at least one professional guardian.