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"Reforms to help protect seniors are OKd"

Los Angeles Times

Judicial Council adopts recommendations to tighten the oversight of conservators who serve as guardians for the elderly and infirm.

By Evelyn Larrubia
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 27, 2007

Concerned about predatory practices and weak oversight of conservators serving as guardians for the elderly, the California Judicial Council on Friday approved a series of reforms aimed at protecting seniors from being "hijacked" into conservatorships and other abuses.

The policymaking body for California courts unanimously ratified 85 recommendations for reform, including employing fraud–detection computer software, developing a "bill of rights" for conservatees and automatically appointing lawyers for the elderly and infirm in every case filed with the courts.

"Some of our most vulnerable individuals have been victimized, frankly," Chief Justice Ronald M. George said at the morning hearing in San Francisco. "The work of this task force will result in vital improvements, some of which we can do ourselves, some of which need legislative action.""

Conservatorship is the legal term for the procedure whereby the court appoints a person to take over the life and finances of an adult who has lost the ability to care for himself or herself because of advanced age or illness. In the process, the elderly and infirm are stripped of basic freedoms, sometimes including the right to vote. Although those appointed often are relatives, a number of entrepreneurs have created for–profit businesses to perform conservatorship duties.

The Judicial Council’s action, George said, came in response to a four–part series in the Los Angeles Times that detailed how some conservators ran up fees, neglected their wards and isolated them from relatives. Elderly Californians were dragged into conservatorships that they did not want and, in hundreds of cases, lost their independence without their consent after hearings that lasted minutes. Once placed under a conservatorship, seniors found it difficult and expensive to get out.

After the articles were published, legislators crafted bills requiring courts to be more vigilant, clamping down on the ease with which emergency conservatorships had been awarded and creating new restrictions on conservators, including requiring those who work for a profit to be trained and licensed.

At the same time, the Probate Conservatorship Task Force began studying the state's conservatorship system, and after 18 months produced the 314–page report approved by the council. The group found that seniors and disabled adults who are the subject of conservatorships need many additional protections.

The elderly "have a target on them, and that target is their estate," said Administrative Presiding Judge Roger W. Boren, who heads L.A.’s appellate court and also led the task force.

Because the Legislature was working on the issue at the same time and the groups kept in close communication, Boren said, a number of the task force’s recommendations have already been signed into law.

The 29–member council Friday ordered the court’s top administrator to assign the task force’s recommendations to various committees for implementation. Some can be done quickly, such as conducting random audits of conservators’ financial reports and assigning judges to the probate court for longer periods.

But other reforms, such as establishing caseload maximums for the court staff and launching a grant–funded program of volunteer advocates, will require additional funding because they call for an increase in staff.

It’s a question of the court’s obligation to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society," George said. "Despite our commitment to improve the system, we can’t do all of it in our existing resources."

George said he was hopeful that the Legislature and governor would approve the necessary funding. But funding has been a recurring problem for those seeking conservatorship reform. Three previous governors have vetoed legislation aimed at reform, in some cases because of the cost. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a package of reform bills. But in August, he cut $17 million earmarked to implement conservatorship reforms. The governor’s veto message indicated that it was a one-year delay.