Overburdened courts and pro bono elder advocates continue trying to solve the problem of the insufficient oversight of vulnerable seniors. But the elephant in the room remains the risk posed from financial exploitation of the vulnerable elders’ estates from inadequately supervised fiduciaries.
As defined by Arizona law, financial exploitation is “the illegal or improper use of an incapacitated or vulnerable adult or his resources for another’s profit or advantage.” Unfortunately, the list of those seeking such profit or advantage too often includes family members, friends, and professional fiduciaries, including lawyers and guardians.
In January, I blogged about Guarding the guard wall to prevent elder abuse and mentioned one possible solution. It’s a program called Special Advocates for Elders or SAFE and it’s modeled on CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA is the program made up of specially trained community volunteers appointed by a judge to represent the best interest of abused and neglected children in court.
SAFE meets a similar need but instead of children, these trained court-appointed volunteers serve the vulnerable elderly. They investigate the need for guardianship and then provide the important follow-up to check compliance once a guardianship has been established. As recently described by Nevada’s Senior Spectrum Newspaper, Special Advocates for Elders (SAFE) “supports and advocates for seniors who are unable to handle their personal affairs. Trained volunteers monitor finances, health care and other areas of concern to the seniors in question, and convey crucial information to judges who are overseeing their cases in court.”
Skeptics wonder how such a program would work. Would there be enough volunteers? How well-trained? And isn’t the oversight they provide redundant? In Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, isn’t the Court Appointed Attorney already representing the incapacitated person’s wishes during the Guardianship/Conservatorship proceedings?
The meter’s not running.
What these questions suggest, however, is that the program isn’t fully understood. Instead of duplication of effort, the SAFE volunteers are an invaluable part of the court’s oversight. The volunteers take the time to check out the facts and report directly to the court and unlike those who are financially-incentivized, the volunteers don’t have a meter running while they do this important work. Trained, independent volunteers visit and monitor referred adults of concern in the community and various institutions, and provide the courts with additional information.
The newest SAFE program is in Douglas County, Nevada. Because of inconsistent funding and lack of awareness of its potential value, there aren’t many SAFE programs around. But this newest SAFE is already proving its value, recently bringing to the district court’s attention the county public guardian’s failure to file annual accounting reports of the person and the estate of the wards under her care. Thanks to SAFE, it was also learned that the public guardian had not been meeting with her wards either. See Judge demands guardian produce records and More public administrator cases coming to court.
Under Nevada’s probate law, the Public Administrator provides two distinct services. In Douglas County, the Public Administrator serves as the Administrator of the estate of a deceased person who dies intestate and she also serves as the Public Guardian who is the guardian of the person, the estate, or the person and the estate of an incompetent person.
Events came to a head several days ago when the Douglas County Public Administrator unexpectedly announced her resignation effective December 1, 2010. She had already announced her intentions to see reelection. But to be clear, there’s been no finding, let alone any allegation of malfeasance on the part of the Public Administrator. Indeed, in her statement, Public Administrator Lynn EnEarl cited personal family reasons for her decision to resign and not the attendant revelations reported in the local press. See EnEarl resigns as public administrator.
All this aside, thanks to SAFE, the local district court in Douglas County, Nevada now has a demonstrably proven, additional tool at its disposal to better protect the vulnerable elders under its supervision.