A Unique Model to Addressing Guardianship

by Jean Callahan, Attorney-in-Charge, Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Neighborhood Office

Our second guardianship story is based on an interview with Jean Callahan, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office of the Legal Aid Society, and previously served as the Director of The Guardianship Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. For more information about the Vera Institute, visit The Guardianship Project, Vera Institute of Justice.

Jean Callahan as interviewed by the National Center on Elder Abuse
Attorney-in-Charge, Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Neighborhood Office

In law school, Jean received a fellowship that allowed her to focus on elder law at the Harlem Neighborhood Office of the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit law firm. This experience made Jean realize how many older adults get taken advantage of and have problems that may result in a court-appointed guardian. Later, while working at the Vera Institute of Justice, Jean helped found and served as Director of The Guardianship Project(TGP), which provides guardianship services for incapacitated elderly New Yorkers regardless of their ability to pay for services. TGP employs attorneys, social workers, financial and property managers, and people from related disciplines in order to offer the most comprehensive guardianship model available in New York.

When asked about a positive experience from her work with TGP, Jean reflected on the possibility of someone who is being financially exploited or physically neglected ending up in institutional care and not being able to get home again. Jean explained that the cases from TGP that felt best were the ones where they were able to keep people in their homes. Jean shares one example below:

There was an elderly woman who had modest assets and did not own property. After a traumatic event, she was taken to the ER, where she was diagnosed with dementia and deemed to lack the capacity to care for herself. She was then placed in a nursing home and was not allowed to return to her home.

After several months in the nursing home, members of TGP received her case. The court asked TGP to take care of the spend-down so that the client could become eligible for Medicaid and stay in the nursing home. But, after TGP assessed the client, they found that she did have the capacity to care for herself. The client struggled with a hoarding problem and a speech impediment that prevented her from being able to express herself when she was upset. TGP became her guardian and conducted intensive case management to clean her apartment, and get housekeeping in place. Within a few weeks, TGP went from thinking that they would be doing a spend-down to getting the client discharged and placed back in her home! The client was happy with the outcome, and she ended up staying in her home for another three years; she was never again placed in institutional care. This example shaped how TGP did business going forward because they realized that many seniors were on this assembly line toward nursing home placement, and they could help divert people from that so that they could stay in their homes.

For those at a state and jurisdiction level looking to fund public guardianship programs Jean recommends taking a holistic look at who you want to serve and what you want to accomplish, and focus on that. Jean urges organizations to “Make sure you have the ability to serve those people so that you do not create an unfunded mandate where you bring forth petitions for guardianship with no one to serve as guardian.” In NYC, the city contracts directly with three agencies that can serve as guardians. Therefore, if Adult Protective Services starts a petition for guardianship, one of the three agencies will take the case regardless of ability to pay for services.

Jean also encourages looking for alternatives to guardianship such as financial management units, supported decision making, and family members that can assist incapacitated individuals if possible.