Murky guardian system assailed as 'prone to abuse'

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2011 - 10:52 AM

Daughter tells how she was unable to bid farewell to her dying mother because of interference from court-appointed caretaker.

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U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar talked with Deanna Van de North after Van de North addressed a discussion group Wednesday on shortcomings in the guardianship system, and how they affected her dying mother. Klobuchar has introduced legislation to address such shortcomings nationally.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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The pain of never saying goodbye to her dying mother still hurts Deanna Van de North. The St. Paul woman blames a state guardian system plagued by too little accountability, training or overseeing.

Van de North said court-appointed guardians and conservators, including a relative, misused thousands of dollars of her mother's money and didn't obtain the care she needed, which resulted in her deteriorating health. During the final months of her mother's life, court-appointed guardians tried to cover up their failings by restricting visitation. Van de North didn't learn of her mother's death until four hours after her body was cremated in 2006, she said.

"We weren't able to overcome the system," Van de North said.

Van de North told her mother's story Wednesday to a discussion group organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is putting together legislation to address shortcomings in the guardian system nationwide. It's an often-ignored corner of the legal system, one that can be ripe for abuse and misdeeds because it involves elderly and vulnerable adults no longer able to make life and financial decisions for themselves.

More than 20,000 people in Minnesota have court-appointed guardians or conservators. Most of these positions are held by relatives of those in need of assistance.

The Star Tribune has documented a series of cases that raise questions about the system in Minnesota. Earlier this year, the newspaper showed how a guardian and conservator with one of the state's largest caseloads was a former lawyer who was suspended for mishandling cases and lying to her clients. Prosecutors in Rice County charged the caretaker with stealing $68,000 from 10 vulnerable adults in her care.

On Wednesday, panel members credited Minnesota with making strides toward improving the system. In 2009, a new state law created a "bill of rights" for those under guardianship or conservator care. The law added more monitoring and made it easier to challenge bad decisions. It requires guardians and conservators to register and provide disclosures to the state courts. Unlike some states, the legislation did not require certification of professional guardians.

In January, courts statewide started requiring conservators to file electronic reports, which make it easier to track their activities. Last month, approval was given for regular, statewide audits of these reports. In Hennepin County, for the first time, all guardians and conservators will soon have to undergo minimal training.

"One of the reasons guardianship systems are prone to abuse in some cases is because they are so very much under the radar and because state courts lack the resources to address some of the problems we know exist," said Kim Dayton, a William Mitchell College of Law professor who heads its elder justice and policy center. "Bringing guardianship systems to the public attention is part of the accountability process."

A government report last year documented hundreds of allegations of abuse, neglect or mistreatment by court-appointed guardians. It found loose scrutiny and certification requirements across the country. Only 13 states, including Minnesota, require background checks before a court will appoint a guardian.

With a "silver tsunami" of baby boomers retiring over the next two decades, new pressures on the system are coming, Klobuchar said.

"Obviously, there will be more of a need for guardians, and there will be more of a need for us to make sure our system is working and protect people," said Klobuchar, who held a Senate hearing on the subject in Washington last week at which dozens of victims submitted testimony.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

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