Minn. House bill urges tighter rules for guardians

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2009 - 9:59 PM

A House bill would provide protected persons a 15-point bill of rights. A Senate bill is also planned.

Lawmakers are moving this week to tighten Minnesota's standards for guardians and conservators, proposing wide-ranging changes to the largely unregulated system charged with safeguarding the lives and assets of citizens deemed unable to make their own decisions.

The House version of the bill, filed this week, would create a statewide register of guardians and conservators, and require them to alert the court each year if they were convicted of a crime or removed from a case by a judge. The legislation would also provide more opportunities to challenge a conservator's spending and the guardian's annual report on a ward's well-being.

It would create a 15-point bill of rights for wards and protected persons, including the right to treatment with dignity and respect, the ability to marry, vote, and visit with whomever a ward chooses, and to petition the court to end the guardianship.

The bill filed Monday came on the heels of a Star Tribune report Sunday on the case of Peggy Greer of Excelsior. Over a two-year period, Greer's guardian and conservator spent $672,000 on health care, attorney's fees and other expenses before she persuaded a judge to restore her rights.

The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the timing was coincidental, but that the reforms will address issues raised in the story: "How can we better protect people who have guardians and conservators assigned to them." About 22,500 Minnesotans are under the care of guardians and conservators, a number that grows by about 3,000 a year. Nationally, questions about whether the system works well enough to safeguard the nation's aging population have been raised by groups representing the elderly, as well as guardians and conservators.

"You're seeing the result of a lack of oversight and accountability in a lot of areas," Thissen said Tuesday, when it comes to personal care attendants, home health care, and guardians and conservators. "That's sinking in with legislators."

One of the advocacy groups supporting the bill, the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, has heard numerous stories of guardians and conservators failing to protect people under their care, said Ed Eide, the group's executive director.

"Somebody in the court system or somewhere needs to hold them accountable for making the ward's life worse than when they came into the guardianship and conservatorship system," Eide said.

Thissen said his proposal is the most far-reaching effort yet to professionalize and screen those who would work as guardians and conservators. While past reform attempts have failed, Thissen said that a study group's work over the past year could go a long way toward building consensus this year.

Last month, the study group reported that Minnesota needs a better system for handling complaints and tracking the decisions of guardians and conservators, among other changes.

The Minnesota Association for Guardianship and Conservatorship, a trade organization, supports the recommendations of the study group, said Daniel Steinhagen, an attorney and the organization's past president. But he said certification of guardians and conservators -- something not proposed in Thissen's bill for Minnesota, but implemented in some other states -- would likely discourage competent people from doing the work, while failing to stop those intent on abusing their power.

A companion bill is expected in the Senate this week. Thissen said he expects hearings on the bill to begin in March.

James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4271

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