Sunday, December 03, 2006

Seattle Times exposes the seamy underside of the guardianship business in Washington State

Kudos to the Seattle Times for exposing the weaknesses and failures of the court appointed guardianship business. It is a relief to see the problems of professional guardianship brought forward into the light of day. For too long, court commissioners, judges, guardian ad litems, and many lawyers have perpetuated the image of the abusive, neglectful, and, spendthrift family member as the rule rather than the exception. All the while, these members of the legal community have known, but chosen to ignore or minimize the problems of professional guardianship.

As the Times series points out, one of the key problems is the high cost of guardianship services, relative to that of a family member who typically serves for free. One of the barriers to family members serving as guardians is the bonding process. Typically, courts will seek to block funds not needed in the current year. For the funds needed in the current year, the court often requires the guardian to be bonded for that amount. These fidelity bonds are not easy to get and are underwritten by a relatively few companies. For an otherwise highly capable and caring family member, personal financial impacts of disability, bankruptcy and business failure can disqualify the most qualified person for guardianships.

It is debatable whether the track record of this State’s guardianship services as a whole, surpasses the track record of family members. What is clear is that courts are concentrating the care of highly vulnerable individuals and/or their estates in the hands of a small group of people who are tightly connected with the court system. Guardianship services have received highly favorable treatment from the courts and the legal community when cases have been brought to court.

Most chilling is the case of the aged Alzheimer’s patient who jumped to her death from a condo window. Although she was receiving around the clock care from caregivers in the employ of the guardianship service, her body was not found until the next morning. A Washington State Appellate court found that the personal representative of her estate could not bring claims on her behalf against the guardianship agency. Had the patient been in a nursing home, there would have been profound consequences for this failure.

The guardianship agency in question had managed to siphon off several hundred thousand dollars from the estate prior to the patient’s death. One can certainly understand the frustration of the personal representative in this case. Lawyers have tended to dismiss this case as an aberration as the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Douglas Schaeffer, is a bit of a pariah in his own legal community having been suspended from practice in the Judge Anderson scandal in Pierce County several years ago. It’s useful to note that this scandal involved the guardianship “game” in the area.

The Times lends a much needed voice of credibility to exposing the failures of the system in the name of professionalism to protect some of society’s most vulnerable members. Read the series here.