Protecting the vulnerable vs. civil rights

Advocates say guardianship too often trumps the rights of disabled adults.

Minnesota law explicitly gives these individuals the right to associate with people of their choosing and to have privacy for visits. Yet advocates seeking to help the disabled live more independently say they are routinely barred at the door by group home supervisors or court-appointed guardians, who often exercise broad powers over their wards.

As a result, group home residents can become virtual prisoners, said Maggie Treichel, an organizer for Self Advocates of Minnesota, a disability rights group. "There are people across this state who desperately want the chance to tell their stories, and they are being silenced," she said.

Guardians and group home operators say they must protect vulnerable adults whose cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses can lead them to make poor decisions. But they acknowledge that balancing safety against individual liberties can be tricky.

"Guardianship is the most intrusive tool we have available," said Anita Raymond, a social worker and board member of the Minnesota Association for Guardianship and Conservatorship. "And it's a tool that we as a society tend to overuse."

During its six-month investigation, the Star Tribune was prevented by guardians from interviewing six people with disabilities, even though all had consented to interviews. One guardian said she feared her ward might say something critical about his group home and jeopardize his placement there. Another guardian prevented an interview with a woman with a mild cognitive disability, saying the conversation could cause her anxiety.

Lawyers with advocacy groups say Minnesota should work harder to enforce the law that protects the disabled's rights. "You don't leave your First Amendment rights at the door when you become someone under guardianship," said Patricia Siebert, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center. "But unfortunately, those lines keep getting blurred." 612-673-4308