The New York Times reports on the growing problem of exploitation of the elderly and infirm through gaps in the nation’s guardianship system. The Government Accountability Office has found that state guardianship systems across the country are rife with exploitation. State courts appoint guardians to protect the vulnerable, but the G.A.O. has identified hundreds of cases of negligence, as well as physical and financial abuse. Though state laws differ, a judge who rules that a person is cognitively impaired can appoint a guardian, sometimes a company, to oversee the person’s well-being. The guardian can decide to sell the ward’s house and move him or her into a nursing home. The guardian can also choose which of the ward’s friends and relatives can visit.
The National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit think tank, estimates that guardians across the country supervise 1.3 million adults and an aggregate of $50 billion of their assets. Brenda K. Uekert, the center’s principal court research consultant, said that with the “aging of the baby boomers and the onset of dementia, we expect those numbers to go up.” State courts cannot afford to hire enough people to monitor the well-being of wards and to scrutinize the guardians’ stewardship of assets. Advocates are pushing for better judicial oversight. Uekert’s group is training judges to find alternatives to full guardianship and is working with several states to create automated systems that would detect misspending.