Thursday, July 14, 2016

Understanding Guardianship Part 3: Public guardians and Wards of the State

A 2005 report, “Wards of the State: A National Study of Public Guardianship” by Teaster, Wood, Karp, Lawrence, Schmidt, and Mendiondo, gives this definition of public guardianship:

Public guardianship is the appointment and responsibility of a public official or publicly funded organization to serve as legal guardian in the absence of willing and responsible family members or friends to serve as, or in the absence of resources to employ, a private guardian. Since the 1960s, states and localities have developed a variety of mechanisms to address this ‘unbefriended’ population, often serving as ‘guardian of last resort.’”

The report is written from the point of view that if a mentally incapacitated person needs a guardian and has a willing and responsible family member or friend who can take on that role, this is better for the individual and less costly for the state. But if there is no one to do this, the state must find a way to fill the need for guardians. The relevance of this report is that it highlights conflicting policies within the system of care and protection for people with disabilities. We now have federally-funded advocacy organizations and agencies that, rather than encouraging families and friends to step up to the responsibility of becoming guardians, are doing more and more to discourage guardianship. This is occurring through the promotion of less formal (and less accountable) means of making decisions for people who are mentally incapacitated through Supported Decision-Making.  

The “Wards of the State" study is a combination of an extensive literature search on the topic of public guardianship, a review of case studies, and the results of surveys involving guardianship program staff from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin with additional material from phone interviews and focus groups. [The page numbering of the 2005 report is inconsistent and confusing. Instead of using the page numbers at the bottom of the page, I will give you the page number of the downloaded PDF file of the report: p. 8 of the PDF]

[A more recent report from 2007, “Wards of the State: A National Study of Public Guardianship” by Teaster, Wood, Lawrence, and Schmidt, is based on the 2005 report and was published in the Stetson Law Review, Vol. 37. According to a footnote on p. 194,  “Although the data used in the study were collected in 2004, this Article includes updated statutory information added after the project report...This Article relies heavily on the results and summaries developed by the Authors in [the 2005] Public Guardianship Study…” The 2007 report is based substantially on the 2005 report and comes to similar conclusions.]

There is conflicting evidence on the effect of public guardianship on people who are disabled because of advancing age or who acquire disabilities at other stages in life for a variety of reasons. One observation of the 2005 report  is that, “In truth, we have very little data to refute or substantiate this. Statistics are scant. The number of adults under guardianship in the United States remains unknown...This paucity of research makes it difficult to assess the results of guardianship reform efforts.” [p. 21 of the PDF]

The 2005 and 2007 Public Guardianship Reports cover the recent history of guardianship, its abuses, and attempts to reform it. Here are some highlights of the report that I found interesting and relevant to todays controversies over guardianship and the promotion of Supported Decision-Making as a substitute: 
  • “Wards. Individuals under guardianship appear to have shifted somewhat from the older adult population (e.g., persons aged 65+) to a younger population (e.g., persons ages 18-64). In many ways, reported anecdotally, younger wards reflect a more challenging client mix. Primary diagnoses of wards were typically  developmental disabilities, mental illness, and mental retardation [intellectual disabilities]… rather than AD [Alzheimer’s Disease] or other dementias… “
  • “Public guardianship programs may be categorized into four distinct models…(1) a court model; (2) an independent state office; (3) a division of a social service agency; and (4) a county agency. [p. 180 of PDF] Most states run public guardianship programs as a division of a social service agency, although this system is the most prone to conflict of interest between the agency’s role of a guardian (monitoring and advocating for services) and the role of a social services agency (providing for services). [p.6 of the PDF]
  • “Overwhelmingly, when respondents provided information on strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, the greatest strength was that of the public guardianship staff. Most staff members [of agencies providing public guardian services] worked under difficult conditions with less than adequate remuneration and with difficult clients. Turnover of staff was reportedly surprisingly low. The predominant weakness of programs was the lack of funding…” [p. 8 of PDF]
  • “In most states, a majority of public guardianship wards are institutionalized….The Olmstead case provides a strong mandate for re-evaluation of extent of institutionalization of public guardianship clients.” [p. 180 of PDF] [This has been a contentious issue in states that are pursuing deinstitutionalization contrary to the wishes of facility residents and their families. Overzealous state guardians have at times been perceived as acting for the interests of the state to close institutions, rather than in the wards' best interests. See also, “The Olmstead Decision has been Misinterpreted]
  • “Not surprisingly, …was the assertion, by nearly every program in every state of a critical lack of funding, which translated into circumscribed services for wards and inadequate staffing to meet ward needs. This is more significant now than in the past, as the demographic imperative portends more and more individuals needing guardianship services.” [p. 9 of PDF]

These are among the conclusions of the report [p. 12 of PDF]:
  • States have significant unmet needs for public guardianship and other surrogate decision-making services.
  • Staff size and caseload in public guardianship programs show enormous variability.
  • Public guardianship programs are frequently understaffed and underfunded.
  • Although some public guardianship programs use ratios to cap the number of clients, most serve as guardian of last resort without limits on intake.
  • Funding for public guardianship is from a patchwork of sources, none sufficient.
  • Very little data exist on public guardianship.
  • Oversight and accountability of public guardianship is uneven.

This report is a comprehensive study - I have barely scratched the surface. 


Supported Decision-Making has been promoted as a replacement for guardianship despite a lack of standards and very little evidence of its effectiveness in protecting people who are mentally incapacitated. When advocates and federal agencies speak pejoratively about guardianship and charge that people who seek it are depriving their loved-ones of their rights, is it any wonder that state courts and public agencies have difficulty in finding family members and personal friends of the individuals involved who are willing to be guardians? If the state can’t get families and friends to take on the responsibility of guardianship, the increased use of public guardians as “the last resort”, seems inevitable. Is it not likely that the unintended consequences of the Supported Decision-Making movement will be a detriment to the people they are claiming to help?

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