gavel and paperwork

With Britney Spears’ conservatorship shining a public spotlight on problems surrounding guardianship and conservatorship systems, two Senate committees are looking for solutions for related issues affecting older adults, a group that includes senior living residents.

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), current and former chairs of the Senate Aging Committee, respectively, have introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act in an effort to protect older adults from abusive guardianships.

The Tuesday announcement of the proposed legislation came on the same day as a Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on The Constitution hearing on the need to reform conservatorships. 

The bill from Casey and Collins addresses recommendations in the Senate Aging Committee’s 2018 report and hearing that examined ways to strengthen guardianship programs. Specifically, the act would expand the availability of federal demonstration grants to develop state guardianship databases to collect information on guardians, training for court visitors, and information on guardian background checks.

The act also would establish a National Resource Center on Guardianship, which would publish information relevant to guardianship, share model legislation and best practices, compile training materials, promote the use of alternatives meant to be less restrictive, share research on guardianship and maintain a database on state laws regarding guardianship and the use of alternatives thought to be less restrictive. 

“Unfortunately, we don’t know much about how many guardianships are occurring, how they’re managed or how much fraud or abuse is happening,” Casey said in a statement. “This bill would help provide accountability and oversight into guardianships, promote best practices, and provide funding and training to spot abuse.”

“Preventing guardianship abuse requires law enforcement and social service agencies at all levels of government to work together, and the Guardianship Accountability Act promotes this kind of collaboration,” Collins said in a statement. 

Conservatorship hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee featured several witnesses testifying regarding their experiences with conservatorships and guardianships, along with recommendations to address fixes to the systems.

Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Disability Rights Program, testified that older adults, disabled individuals and their advocates understand the current issues with guardianship, which she said “strips people of their core, essential liberties — often permanently — with little interest, oversight or concern by the general public.”

The ACLU, she said, is working to change the nation’s “overreliance” on guardianship, reduce the number of people with guardians and expand the use of alternatives to guardianship, including supported decision-making and plain language documents. 

Supported decision-making, Brennan-Krohn said, encourages individuals to widen their support circles, allowing older adults or people with disabilities to maintain their ability to make decisions with the support of several individuals to help with decisions about medical needs, finances and living situations. 

David Slayton, vice president of Court Consulting Services for the National Center for State Courts, said that some of the practices involved in guardianship neither honor nor protect elderly or disabled individuals. He urged the federal government to assist the state courts in correcting harmful practices to improve the management and outcome of guardianships.

$5.9 million in grants

In related news, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living, which includes the Administration on Aging, is awarding 14 two-year Elder Justice Innovation grants totaling $5.9 million to support issues surrounding guardianship, conservatorship and transitions to community services.

The grants will go to the highest courts of seven states — Alaska, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Oregon — to address adult guardianship and conservatorship proceedings and develop ways to improve the experiences of individuals at risk of guardianship or conservatorship.

Seven grants will assess the various services designed to produce better outcomes for individuals transitioning from short-term adult protective services to other services and programs meant to prevent the recurrence of abuse over the longer term. Recipients include the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health, Bronx, NY; the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, Cleveland, which includes the Margaret Wagner Apartments, affordable senior housing; and the Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect at the University of California, Irvine.