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A bipartisan bill proffered in the Pennsylvania General Assembly is aimed at strengthening guardianship laws and preventing elder abuse for senior living and care residents and other older adults.

Keystone State Sens. Lisa Baker (R) and Art Haywood (D) recently introduced state Senate Bill 506 to provide alternatives to appointed guardianships. The bill would require courts to automatically appoint counsel to individuals going through the guardianship process; consider other, less restrictive alternatives before imposing a guardianship; and institute training and screening of professional guardians. 

“Unfortunately, cases where guardians have stolen or misused money belonging to the people they are legally charged with looking after are not uncommon,” Baker stated.  “We must have capable people step in and protect their financial interests.”

Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that does not automatically appoint counsel to represent alleged incapacitated individuals.

The Pennsylvania Assisted Living Association supports the legislation, Executive Director Margie Zelenak told the McKnight’s Business Daily.

“Employees of personal care and assisted living communities are required to complete criminal background checks to work with seniors. These background checks protect the seniors that live in our communities,” Zelenek said. “Guardians can provide oversight for seniors living in our communities; therefore, it only seems plausible that they are also screened for any criminal history records.” 

The call for guardianship reform is not new in Pennsylvania. In 2019, a group of legal advocates for older adults called for major changes to guardianship laws following an investigative report that found extensive flaws in the way the state handled its background checks and appointments — leaving many nursing home residents, among others, vulnerable to exploitation. At that time, a single guardian serving more than 100 older adults had been charged with multiple felonies related to stealing from them.

“LeadingAge PA supports efforts to protect vulnerable older adults from abuse and exploitation,” President and CEO Garry Pezzano said. “We encourage lawmakers to engage providers and other stakeholders throughout this process to ensure reforms achieve their desired outcome and allow older adults to receive the care and services they need.”

The Legislature’s Aging and Youth and Judiciary committees heard testimony last week from a judge, attorneys, advocates for older adults and disability rights advocates about the bill. Teresa Osborne, state advocacy director for AARP Pennsylvania, testified in favor of guardianship reforms, stating that AARP state affiliates “have played a key role in the enactment of hundreds of new bills to update state guardianship laws and practices so that guardians are aware of their roles and responsibilities.”

Pennsylvania Health Care Association President and CEO Zach Shamberg said the association also supports the bill “in hopes that it can further support older Pennsylvanians by streamlining the guardianship process — if necessary — and generate family members or appointed guardians who will act in the best interest of an individual who is unable to make decisions on his or her own.

“Not all older adults or adults with disabilities have family members who can look out for them, and not all family members have the best interest of their loved one in mind,” he added. “This legislation would create more avenues in assigning guardianship, but also better training and screening to ensure we have the right guardians making decisions on behalf of older Pennsylvanians.”