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U.S. Senate Committee Pushing States to Reassess Adult Guardianship Programs

A lack of data and little oversight are two of the prime factors contributing to the exploitation of disabled and elderly adults. That's according to a report released Wednesday by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins.

"We have found a pattern of barriers to proper oversight, and we have identified a need of greater use of alternatives to guardianship,” says Collins.

Collins says the report, compiled over the last year, found that many state authorities were privy to little or no data on their own guardianship cases. While many court-appointed guardians act appropriately, Collins says the system makes it too easy for at-risk adults to be victimized by the very people appointed to care for them. Sen. Collins says that, in many cases, the at-risk adult stands to lose all autonomy and rights, but often does not have an attorney during court proceedings.

Maine's Acting Health and Human Services Commissioner, Bethany Hamm, says an overhaul in Maine's probate code, which will take effect July 1, 2019, will address at least some of the problems Maine faces by requiring that guardians file regular reports with the court.

"The reports provide sufficient information to establish the guardian has complied with the guardian's duty, whether the guardianship should continue, and also whether the guardian's fees, if any, should be approved,” says Hamm. “So that's just a few examples of those."

The Senate Committee report makes a number of recommendations, most of which are contained in a bill sponsored by Sen. Collins, and co-sponsored by ranking member Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, including background checks, regular reports and financial audits.

According to the Senate report, an estimated 1.3 million adults across the country are under the care of a guardian, with guardians in control of roughly $50-billion in assets. 

Correction: In an earlier version of this story we mistakenly referred to Sen. Casey as the sponsor, rather than co-sponsor.