Too many times the courts have entrusted the well-being of dependent individuals to guardians who promise protection, then steadily swindle them for the rest of their lives.
These guardians come with the highest credentials — attorneys, professionals and, in one Ocean County case, a minister who was also a licensed social worker. With nothing in their reputations or resumes to suggest they are other than upstanding citizens, these scoundrels gain control of the bank accounts and legal affairs of their wards.
Soon, however, the guardians will have guards watching for signs of this most despicable crime.
Last week, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced that teams of volunteer watchdogs will monitor the legal guardians for tens of thousands disabled and elderly people. They’ll be on the lookout for theft or abuse of power.
The Volunteer Guardianship Monitoring Program will train people to scan the annual expense reports all legal guardians are required to file with the county and look for any “red flags” that suggest possible mismanagement, as The Star-Ledger’s Susan Livio reported last week.
While the vast majority of court-appointed guardians are caring and responsible, the audacity of those who prey on the powerless is breathtaking. An Ocean County lawyer, for instance, stole millions from his physically and mentally handicapped clients who had no heirs or next of kin.
For each high-profile case, there could be hundreds of other smaller swindles.
The innovative statewide program, set to launch soon in Mercer, includes a database that will facilitate tracking and investigation. The most important resource, however, will be the volunteers.
It is, as the chief justice says, a noble aim to shield those depending on guardians from larceny .
A federal measure in the works would complement New Jersey’s vigilance on legal guardians. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is calling for better screening of the 5.6 million representative payees who annually handle $61 billion in Social Security payments for 7.6 million beneficiaries.
The push stems from a Philadelphia case in which a woman allegedly kept disabled captives drugged and wounded in a filthy basement after tricking them into signing over their benefits to her. She was able to collect those checks even though she’d served time for starving a man to death.
During a five-state test of Casey’s measure, dozens of people convicted of fraud and violence were prevented from becoming the managers of another individual’s Social Security payments.
Implemented on a national level, this safeguard would work in tandem with the guardian-monitoring program to protect some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents.
Editorial: Exposing guardian devils — N.J. Supreme Court tightens watch of guardians
Times of Trenton Editorial Board
February 3, 2013