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An estimated 22,000 Minnesotans live under the authority of court-appointed guardians and conservators, and about 3,000 new cases are added each year. Now those individuals, many of them suffering from mental illnesses or dementia, have new protections from misconduct on the part of those appointed to make decisions for them.
Motivated by stories about questionable behavior by guardians and conservators, the state Legislature voted overwhelmingly to strengthen oversight of what had been a virtually unregulated profession in Minnesota.
The law, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed Friday, creates a "bill of rights" for wards and protected persons, bolsters their ability to challenge decisions made on their behalf and requires guardians and conservators to register with the state courts starting in 2013.
The law stops short of requiring certification of people wanting to be guardians and conservators, a measure required in several other states. The original bill passed by the Senate included that requirement, but Sen. Mee Moua, the St. Paul DFLer who championed the guardianship reforms, said she agreed to take it out in order to reach a compromise.
The guardian bill was a victory for advocates for the mentally ill, disabled and seniors, as well as individuals who came to the Capitol with horror stories about a family member's treatment by a guardian or conservator.
Some of those families brought their stories to Whistleblower, and my report in February about the costly guardianship and conservatorship of Peggy Greer of Excelsior was cited by lawmakers and advocates as the kind of situation they hope greater oversight will prevent.
Under the new law, guardians and conservators will have to make themselves and their decisions more visible to the court and interested persons, while wards have an affirmation of their rights to exercise as much liberty as their situations allow.
"We really think it will create more transparency to actions by guardians and more opportunities for court oversight," said Patricia Siebert, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center.
"It's not going to solve every problem out there," said Rep. Paul Thissen, the Minneapolis DFLer who drove the bill in the House. "It does start down path of bringing more transparency and more eyes to the process."