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Jun 12, 2024  |  
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NextImg:Guardianship: A $50 billion magnet for predators

Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida held a hearing in September 1987 to investigate the abuse of senior citizens placed into court-ordered guardianship. “It is, in one short sentence,” he said during his opening statement , “the most punitive civil penalty that can be levied against an American citizen, with the exception, of course, of the death penalty.”

Pepper, then 87, was outraged at what the so-called protective system had morphed into. Judges got petitions asking that they assign a guardian to a targeted senior who was deemed unable to care for themselves. In a secret court session, the target was promptly declared an “incapacitated ward,” although frequently no medical evidence of infirmity was presented. The ward’s money and property were immediately confiscated and put under the control of a court-appointed stranger — the guardian.

GEORGE SANTOS EXPELLED FROM HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

The ward’s civil rights were terminated, cutting off their ability to hire a lawyer to fight back. Their homes were quickly sold off and they were sent to live in a facility. Four victims testified that September day saying they had been blindsided, forced into a system they didn’t need or want simply because they were old. Another witness, John Hartman, a convicted guardian, was transported from his prison cell in Detroit to testify about how easy it was for him to steal from his wards.

“It was very simple,” he said . “No one bothered to really check what I was doing. Occasionally I would get a call from the court administrator saying, ‘Some of [your] figures don’t add up. Can you fix it?’ And I would fix it.”

Congress has known about the smarmy underbelly operating within state-run guardianship programs (called conservatorships in some states) for decades, yet nothing meaningful has been done to stem the tide of predators who cloak themselves in the protection of the court and proceed to mistreat, isolate, and financially exploit their wards. It remains remarkably easy for one person to guardianize another.

After eight years of investigating and writing about abusive guardianship cases , I can report that abuses still happen today, but on a much larger scale. Nearly everyone has heard of the Britney Spears conservatorship which lasted nearly 14 years, but the public doesn’t realize there are an estimated 2 million Americans currently living under this court control. The precise figure is unknown because no entity keeps track of guardianship cases, despite numerous Government Accountability Office reports outlining the criminal abuses taking place and the urgent need for a centralized database to understand the breadth of the problem.

Some guardianships are certainly necessary, and many work out well, especially if a loving family member is named as guardian. Many professional guardians are truly dedicated and compassionate, but too many are not. In recent years, judges have routinely ignored family members and appointed stranger guardians who can charge the targeted person up to $600 an hour. The caregivers they hire to help further drain the ward’s bank account. Since state courts confiscate ward’s estates worth a combined $50 billion every single year, is it any wonder the unscrupulous are attracted to work within the system?

It is important to realize how powerful a guardian is and how they completely take over someone’s life. Once assigned a guardian, a ward no longer has the constitutional right to spend their own money, vote, sign a contract, freely travel, decide which doctor or relative they can see, or where they will live. Guardians routinely get court permission to ignore a ward’s will, power of attorney choice, and irrevocable trusts. When the guardian tells a judge it’s time to sell a house and move their charge to a nursing home, that, too, is regularly approved. A multitude of worried relatives report their loved ones were isolated and overmedicated to ensure compliance, and when they objected to a guardian’s actions, visits with their loved one were forbidden — sometimes permanently.

Those seeking meaningful reform of the system wonder why Washington hasn’t stepped in to help regulate the state-run programs much like the Justice Department monitors civil rights violations in local law enforcement departments. Congress could pass serious reform laws, but it hasn’t.

One can only conclude that those who make a living from the system and their lobbyists have convinced politicians the status quo is good enough. It decidedly is not.

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Diane Dimond is an investigative journalist and the author of four books including her latest, We’re Here to Help – When Guardianship Goes Wrong , published by Brandeis University Press. Her website includes a "Guardianship Central" section to guide families facing court intervention.