Guardianships get a safety net (NJ)

New Jersey needs to protect vulnerable adults better from being defrauded by their guardians, officials said Wednesday in announcing a plan to have volunteers monitor the records of the tens of thousands of elderly and disabled residents who are under court oversight.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the state’s judiciary will be putting out a call for attorneys, accountants, retired professionals and others to volunteer for a new guardianship monitoring program that will debut in Passaic County and spread statewide.

“We want people who can read and analyze simple financial reports,” Rabner said.

The volunteers will be asked to pore over the annual reports filed in cases in which a guardian — sometimes a relative or friend or sometimes an attorney or other professional — has been appointed to manage the finances, medical care and housing choices of an incapacitated adult.

Those reports are kept in county surrogate offices, some of which do not have the staff to ensure the reports are even filed on time, much less reviewed, Rabner said.

“We know that monitoring practices vary throughout the state,” said the chief justice, pointing out that some counties have until recently been relying on paper files rather than computerized records.

The volunteer initiative was triggered by a concern among judges that the swelling number of guardianships — combined with shrunken budgets and staffs — has left many of these cases untended. Unchecked, the abuse can continue for years. In 2009, Ridgewood attorney Steven T. Rondos pleaded guilty to improperly withdrawing $1.5 million from the guardianship accounts of two dozen clients between 2001 to 2008.

As examples of the kind of abuses that can occur, Rabner cited a 2004 case in which an Ocean County attorney stole a combined $2.6 million from 56 incapacitated clients under his guardianship and the 2008 case in which a Toms River minister who served as a social worker took $200,000 from 19 people under his watch. The chief justice said those abuses were uncovered because Ocean County has an accountant review guardianship case files. The volunteers that the court plans to train will be given instruction on how to check the balances reported at the beginning and end of reporting periods, looking for signs that too much money is being spent on undocumented expenses.

Passaic County among first

Passaic County used to have a staff member regularly review guardianship records but has not had one in quite some time, “like every other county that really had not been followed through on,” said Judge Margaret McVeigh, who presides over the county’s chancery division.

Passaic — along with Hunterdon and Mercer counties — will be the first to have the volunteer program. Members of the Passaic Bar Association have already volunteered to help with the first phase of the program, which involves entering county records — some on paper and some on computer — into a new state database that will track all guardianships and ensure that reviews are conducted yearly, or as often as ordered by the court.

That database should help state court officials determine how many guardianship cases each county is currently overseeing — and how often those appointed guardians are abusing their positions of trust to steal money or assets from their wards.

In Passaic, a recent review of records found that there were 942 guardianship petitions granted between 1998 and mid-2012. Bergen County Surrogate Michael Dressler could only estimate the current number of active guardianship cases in his county at between 3,000 and 4,000.

Dressler’s office previously had a program where as many as 33 volunteers were monitoring the county’s guardianship case files. But eight years ago, Dressler said, he was advised by the state Attorney General’s Office to discontinue the program over concerns that it was a violation of privacy to have volunteers reviewing files that contain personal and financial details.

Under this program, such privacy concerns will be addressed by having all volunteers undergo criminal background checks and sworn to abide by a code of conduct that prohibits them from disclosing details of the cases, Rabner said.


Guardianships get a safety net
Colleen Diskin
January 31, 2013
The Record