The Star-Herald

Strengthening guardianships to protect seniors from financial abuse

Protecting older Americans from financial fraud and exploitation has long been one of my top priorities as chairman of the Senate Aging Committee.  From our toll-free fraud hotline to new laws such as Senior $afe I authored to encourage financial institutions to flag suspicious activity, the committee’s efforts to combat fraud and crack down on criminals have produced results.

One of the most appalling frauds committed against seniors involve abusive guardianships that take advantage of vulnerable older Americans.  These guardians, whether public or private-sector professionals or family members, are entrusted with significant power over individuals who rely on their support.  Their authority can range from deciding where an individual will live and when to seek medical care to deciding whether family members and friends are allowed to visit and how to spend retirement savings.

An estimated 1.3 million adults are under the care of guardians who control approximately $50 billion in assets.  Although guardians provide a valuable and essential service for many Americans in need of support and protection, unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight have used guardianship proceedings to obtain control of individuals and have then used that control to liquidate assets and savings for their own personal benefit.

While we have all heard appalling stories of the fraud that can be perpetrated against vulnerable individuals, there are also many stories of guardians and conservators who have protected seniors against such abuse, preserving both their dignity and their assets.

For instance, when a pastor in Maine allegedly befriended an elderly woman under false pretenses at an assisted living facility last year, it was her conservator who stepped in and prevented exploitation. Before the pastor could steal her money and assets, the conservator notified the police and put a stop to the abuse. It is not difficult to imagine the harm that could have come without the intervention of this trusted guardian.

The Aging Committee is working to help ensure that such success stories become the norm.  This year, we held two hearings on this issue as part of a year-long examination of ways in which the system can be improved to better protect individuals subject to these and similar arrangements from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  Throughout the course of our investigation, we heard harrowing tales from families around the country who are struggling with abusive guardians. We also spoke with families who had heartening stories to share — of dedicated and faithful guardians stepping up to protect the assets of seniors with dementia and other conditions affecting capacity.

At our most recent hearing, on Nov. 26, we released a report titled, “Ensuring Trust: Strengthening State Efforts to Overhaul the Guardianship Process and Protect Older Americans.” The bipartisan report addresses three key areas — the importance of guardianship oversight, alternatives to guardianship, and the need for improved data — and makes 13 recommendations.

Among the expert witnesses at that hearing was Bethany Hamm, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, who provided information on Maine’s Adult Protective Services and public guardianship program.  Ms. Hamm also described a recent update to Maine’s Uniform Probate Code that establishes private guardians’ duty to report annually on the condition of the adult and account for money and other property in guardians’ possession or subject to guardians’ control.

The committee’s report outlines policy recommendations at local, state, and federal levels that would improve outcomes for Americans subject to guardianship.  Many of these recommendations are reflected in legislation that ranking member Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and I have authored, called the “Guardianship Accountability Act.”  This bill would promote information sharing among courts and local organizations as well as state and federal entities, encourage the use of background checks and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and expand the availability of federal grants targeted at improvements to the guardianship system.  

The committee’s investigation uncovered significant challenges in guardianship.  Our report and legislation provide practical steps that can be taken to improve a system that is intended to help safeguard those who need it most.      

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