Update from editor, Saturday, Nov. 19
We've had some really insightful commentary over the past 24 hours. And let me just say how much your responses, and your praise for Guardians for Profit, means to us here at The Times. As Clarence Wigfall noted, newspapers are in trouble, and some in the media have more than earned their bad reputations. But the reporters on this project, Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard, showed what I thought was a conscientious and crusading spirit throughout. They realized that, to write with authority, they had to look at every case that was filed in Southern California over a given period--something no government authority has ever done. Once they did that, and uncovered a startingly high number of abuses, their primary motivation became the plight of the elderly here in California.
I agree with Sharon Denney that, while licensing professional conservators would be a beneficial step, licensing alone will not protect aged adults who can no longer care for themselves. I believe some combination of education, licensing, auditing and investigation is needed. And I believe the practice of granting emergency conservatorships at ex-parte hearings, without the presence of the prospective conservatee and without a lawyer having been appointed for the prosepctive conservatee, must be stopped immediately. The taking away of civil liberties in this fashion, I believe, is shocking and almost unimagineable.
Colleen Keith, in her post, appropriately emphasizes the need to police the probate courts. There are many, many honest and hard-working judges on the probate bench. A vast majority of judges, I would even venture to say, probably fall into that category. But they are extremely over-worked and they lack the staff necessary to scrutinize conservators' work and investigate those who are ripping off their clients. There are, unfortunately, some judges who need themselves to be scrutinized and investigated, and the California Supreme Court needs to think about a more vigorous way to do this, particularly with regard to conservatorships in the probate courts, which typically do not result in appeals and thus do not enable the appellate courts to serve as a check on poor performance by judges at the trial court level.
Bruce Swanson notes that he does not believe requiring conservators to have college degrees would be beneficial. Conservators do not now need to have any formal education--in fact, the only requirements are the lack of a felony record and a $385 fee. I do think the educational requirements recently developed by the state Judicial Council, which go into effect next year, will be better than nothing. But, as Mr. Swanson notes, the failings of conservators are moral failings, not educational ones. If you think of it, there's something oxymoronic about the term "professional conservator"--and this is not to knock the many, many honest and hard-working profeesional conservators now caring for the elderly in California. But the profession presents a real challenge for regulators, particularly because the people being conserved often cannot speak up vigorously for their own rights. The nest eggs that the elderly have spent a lifetime accumulating all too often become honey pots for professional conservators. We wrote about one conservator who was managing a $560,000 estate and spending it at a rate of $84,000 a year, over the ward's objections. The conservator was essentially betting that the ward wouldn't live longer than five or six more years. If she did, she'd be broke.
Keep those posts coming. We'll chat again tomorrow. Vernon Loeb