I was disappointed to recently learn from a colleague about the demise of the Washoe County, Nevada volunteer program known as SAFE, Special Advocates for the Elderly. SAFE’s purpose is to assist judges by independently gathering and evaluating information about elders under or facing guardianships.
Based in Reno, NV, the Washoe County SAFE program became a victim of the great recession when grants and donations apparently dried up during 2008 to 2010. The sad consequence was that an indispensably meritorious organization was forced to shut its doors. A shame I’m late on the news.
SAFE volunteers are appointed by the court in civil or criminal matters involving allegations of exploitation, abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult or ward. In addition to acting as the court’s eyes and ears, SAFE volunteers provide essential companionship that improves the quality of life and enhances the dignity of at-risk elders. And unlike financially motivated stakeholders, these volunteers work autonomously for the court as trained advocates not conflicted by financial self-interest.
The model for SAFE is the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for children. CASA advocates “for the timely placement of abused and neglected children in safe, permanent homes and for the highest quality of their care while they are under the court’s jurisdiction.”
SAFE volunteers are trained to investigate the appropriateness of guardianship for elders by visiting residents in nursing homes and other facilities. They review court documents and accounting records. They interview witnesses, family members, attorneys, and facility staff. Advocates prepare reports of their findings for the court and attend court hearings for the wards.
I’ve been remiss not keeping up with the topic of elder financial abuse here as I once did. The problem hasn’t gone away. Far from it. In fact, I still think SAFE ought to be duplicated throughout the country.
Happily, the SAFE program created 6 years ago in Douglas County, NV continues to thrive. I’ve even heard Douglas County’s SAFE has become a state model and that it may be adopted by other Nevada counties.
Indeed, last week the same Nevada colleague speculated that SAFE’s laudable objectives may even be gaining traction with a Nevada Supreme Court statewide commission created a year ago to study the administration of guardianships in Nevada’s Courts.
Under Nevada Supreme Court Administrative Order ADKT 0507, the Commission to Study the Creation and Administration of Guardianships in Nevada’s Courts has been reviewing the processes for creating guardianships and conservatorships, stakeholder accountability, court documentation and tracking, judicial training, and any resources available or needed to assist Nevada’s courts in administering guardianships.
While it’s commendable Nevada’s high court has tasked a state commission to undertake this comprehensive review, why does it always seem such praiseworthy initiatives only occur in temporal proximity to media scrutiny, scandal and public embarrassment?
Like in other jurisdictions, including Arizona’s, probate court reforms come in fits and starts and seemingly only after disconcerting media revelations. In 2011, for example, The Arizona Republic published a multi-part investigation, “Probate Court: A Troubled System,” which “revealed that Maricopa County Probate Court is allowing the life’s savings of vulnerable adults to become engines of profit for attorneys, for-profit fiduciaries and care providers. Their fees can drain a large portion of the assets of people who have lost the ability to take care of themselves.” Court reforms and remedial legislation followed.
In Nevada, ongoing problems with the probate system in Clark County came to light in a series of Las Vegas Review-Journal articles published in April 2015. “Cases highlighted by the newspaper showed a lack of oversight by the courts, such as failing to require guardians to file annual accounts of a ward’s finances even though it is required by state law.” Two months later, there was a statewide guardianship commission.
But no matter the timing or how belated, this ought not diminish the importance of the Commission’s charge. Past Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Hardesty is Chairperson and is joined by stellar state jurists with longstanding interests in doing right by Nevada’s most vulnerable populations.
Additionally, the Supreme Court’s Order limited the Commission membership to no more than 20 representatives from the public and private guardianship system. And in a refreshing departure from the insular approach too often taken by Arizona’s high court, Commission members also include members of the state legislature and even the news media. Public testimony has also been taken statewide.
And so strong is the Commission’s interest in getting it right that the deadline for the its final report was recently extended by the current Chief Justice to September 30, 2016. The Commission’s website has news, documents and forms as well as meeting recordings. I will keep you posted.
Credits: “rep.5” and “rep.1” by sima dimitric at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “the Clinquant of the Future” by Derrick Tyson at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “DSCF1286 Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City. January 18, 2011” by Rahne at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; other photos via Morguefile.com no attribution required.