Abuse by Guardians? Reflections on the New GAO Report

by Erica Wood, JD, Assistant Director, American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging

Elder Abuse: The Extent of Abuse by Guardians is Unknown, but Some Measures Exist to Help Protect Older Adults,  is the title of the November 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report GAO-17-33 , which is its fourth examination of guardianship. What does this report mean to our field?  The title is a précis of the findings.  Let’s pull it apart:

Elder Abuse – The Report acknowledges the spectrum of kinds of abuse, but states that “financial exploitation is among the more common types.” The Report focuses on elders because it was requested by the Senate Committee on Aging --  yet we know that a substantial but undocumented proportion of guardianship cases involve younger adults with disabilities. 

The Extent of Abuse – The GAO found that the extent of abuse “is unknown due to limited data . . .” This differs little from the GAO finding of 2010 that it  “could not determine whether allegations of abuse by guardians are widespread.” That is, we know guardian abuse -- particularly exploitation -- goes on, but we are not yet able to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem.

Abuse by Guardians – “Guardians” could mean guardians of person and guardians of property (often called “conservators”); and could encompass family guardians, private professional guardians including agencies, and public guardians. The GAO Report profiled eight cases over five years, including six by professionals and two by family guardians.

What is Unknown –Many courts do not collect information on guardianship and elder abuse, and lack distinct database elements allowing them to aggregate caseload characteristics.  Thus, we are working in the dark in seeking policy and practice changes.

But Some Measures Exist – There is hope– as for example through court technology.  Minnesota has a unique auditing system for guardian financial accountings that can identify potentially problematic cases. 

Measures to Help Protect Older Adults – The Report listed scattered promising practices such as efforts to collect complaint data, hone in on “red flags,” bring together problem-solving stakeholders, use background checks, dedicate investigative resources, and take disciplinary measures.  These will require a high priority by courts. 

Where does that leave us? The report made no recommendations, but the findings present a compelling need to shed more light on the phenomenon of abuse by guardians; and to galvanize action steps -- especially on the role and responsibilities of courts, including any perception of conflict or favoritism; as well as the pursuit of criminal and civil remedies for individuals and families affected. 

That is why the U.S. Office of Victims of Crime funded the National Center for State Courts and partner entities to examine the extent of financial exploitation by conservators and workable means to address it, with a national consensus-building Forum in the Spring. Another angle is the recognition and enforcement of high guardian standards, as compiled in the National Guardianship Association’s 2013 Standards of Practice profiled in our earlier blog, which is the focus of an NCEA presentation at the American Society on Aging in March.  Stay tuned!

Erica Wood, JD is Assistant Director of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging where she works on many aspects of adult guardianship reform.  She collaborates with NCEA on questions of policy and practice concerning preventing, detecting or addressing elder abuse that relates to adult guardianship.