If you need a guardian, is the system working for you?
Experts say Missouri needs to do more to protect wards, lessen workloads and give families more peace of mind
"Clearly, something is broken in Missouri," Sharon Bock said.
Bock is the clerk and comptroller for Palm Beach County, Florida. Last year, she led the charge to reform the guardianship system in her home state.
"Missouri has the responsibility to make sure that the statutes are clear, that all of the statutes are designed to be in the best interest of this person who has lost their ability to either have control of their body or control of their money," Bock said.
After profiling the guardianship case of Pauline Williams of Sikeston in February, I reached out to the state lawmakers serving Scott County to ask them if the state's guardianship system needs to be fixed.
"It just appears to be that that's something that's been overlooked,” admits State Representative Holly Rehder.
I made Rehder aware that her home county's Public Administrator, Pam Dirnberger, has 250 wards but just two staff members.
"You know, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. And they've been trying to manage with what they've got. And it's unmanageable," Rehder said. "We have very few administrators and help, staff, to be able to manage such a huge number.”
Rehder said the state statute that recommends one staff member per 50 wards needs to be more than just a suggestion.
"We need to bring that in to what I think the original intent of that statute is. And if it's recommending 50, then 50 is probably the more manageable number,” said Rehder.
Rehder pledges to revisit and revise that statute to provide more oversight and put the wards first.
“It's obvious that it needs to be revisited and fixed,” she said.
State Senator Wayne Wallingford said he too would be "open to looking at the possibility of more oversight," but Wallingford thinks requiring the one to 50 ratio would force many counties to come up with money they don't have.
Wallingford said he believes most families are included in the process and if a judge places a person in the care of a public administrator, "The judges' decision indicates that the family does not have the client's best interest at heart."
"That kind of disinformation, we have found over the years, is rampant in the United States," Bock said of the Senator's comment.
Bock and her staff monitor what's happening in other states and saw my report on Williams' case.
"I would have never believed it was possible," said Williams' daughter Teala Mainzer about her mother's guardianship.
Even with three adult daughters willing to care for her, a judge decided Williams should join the dozens of other wards under the care of the Scott County Public Administrator.
"We're her daughters. We didn't want this situation for her. And yet, here we are," Mainzer said. “We wanted to take care of her. My mother didn't need a guardian.”
"The administrator is elected?" Bock asked of the Public Administrator position.
Bock had a hard time believing an elected official could serve as someone's guardian.
In Florida, guardians are certified and trained. As the elected official, Bock serves as a neutral third party.
“The administration of that day to day activity is not with an elected official, it's with a professional guardian,” Bock explained.
And, she said, a ward's family is part of the process, not on the opposing side.
"The family, in your case for example, in order to get the guardian dismissed, they have to hire a lawyer and spend thousands and thousands of dollars in attorney's fees," Bock said.
Guardianship protection in Florida focuses on two areas: abuse and financial exploitation. Anthony Palmieri heads up the guardianship audits in Bock's office.
"We've identified over 4.1 million dollars' worth of unsubstantiated disbursements and missing assets and fraud,” Palmieri said. “We've had two arrests. We've had numerous guardians discharged."
Bock said the time for Missouri and other states to reform their systems is now.
"Our world has now changed. We've got a lot of elderly. There's a lot of money involved from both national and state. And there's a lot of families that are being affected," she said.
Senator Wallingford said he didn't realize families did not have a real say in guardianship decisions until we reached out to him for this report.
Both he and Representative Rehder now vow to file legislation to fix Missouri's broken guardianship system.
You can bet we will be right there to document those much-needed changes.
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