GAO: Extent of elder abuse from guardians remains unclear

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The Senate Special Committee on Aging meeting Nov. 30.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging meeting Nov. 30.

The national extent of elder abuse by guardians is unknown because data are limited on key factors, such as the numbers of guardians serving older adults, older adults in guardianships and cases of elder abuse by guardians, according to a new report issued Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO prepared the report at the request of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Financial exploitation appears to be one of the most common types of elder abuse by guardians, according to court officials and organization representatives with whom members of the GAO spoke, Kathryn A. Larin, GAO acting director of forensic audits and investigative service, told the Aging Committee at a hearing at which the report was released.

Hearing witness Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly in Augusta, ME, told the Aging Committee about a case in Belfast, ME, where an attorney lost his license and was sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing almost $500,000 from two assisted living residents.

“Both women had appointed the attorney as their financial agent under a power of attorney due to declines in cognitive ability and other medical complications,” she said. “Both had lacked family members to assist with that role. Each believed she was appointing a trusted professional. The thefts were identified by a local bank teller who spotted the questionable transactions and alerted the authorities.”

Most financial exploitation of older adults involves a family member or other trusted person, Martin said. “It is very common for the perpetrator to have obtained legal authority through a POA, guardianship or conservatorship,” she added.

One study puts the annual national cost of financial exploitation at $36.5 billion, Martin said, adding: “It is time to collect data on these abuses on a national basis, and a good place to start is with the state courts and guardianships and conservatorships.”

Larin noted that the Department of Health and Human Services plans to launch the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System — a national reporting system under development since 2013 and based on data from state Adult Protective Services agency information systems — by early 2017. “According to HHS and its contractor, this system has the capability to collect information that could specifically help identify cases of elder abuse where a guardian was involved,” she said.

The GAO also identified state and local initiatives to capture key data points and complaint data as well as identify “red flags,” such as unusually high guardian fees or excessive vehicle or dining expenses, Martin said. Some states have undertaken screening, education, monitoring and enforcement efforts to protect older adults from abuse by guardians, she added.

The federal government does not regulate or directly support guardianship, Martin noted. Rather, state and local courts have primary responsibility over the guardianship process.

“But federal agencies may provide indirect support to state guardianship programs by providing funding for efforts to share best practices and facilitate improved coordination, as well as by sharing information that state and local entities can use related to guardianship,” she said.

The GAO's report shows that progress is being made, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), chairwoman of the Aging Committee, “but much more needs to be done to put best practices in place to oversee guardians and create the tools needed to uncover potential abuse in time to stop it.”

The committee's ranking member, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), noted that the GAO report identified steps that states can take to protect seniors from guardianship arrangements that are bad for them.

“For example, state courts should do their due diligence to make sure that a guardian is truly needed for an individual before one is appointed,” she said. “Allowing seniors to remain in the least-restrictive option can protect the individual while also maintaining as much freedom as possible. Additionally, state courts should periodically re-examine whether guardianships are working well for both parties over the course of the arrangement, and make adjustments where necessary.”

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