Report Details Ways to Improve Guardianship System in US

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 2, 2018

Just days ago, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held an afternoon hearing in the Senate Dirksen Office Building to alert Congress to appalling stories gathered across the nation regarding abusive guardianships that are taking advantage of vulnerable older adults. At this hearing the Senate Aging Committee also released its annual report that takes a look at an examination of guardianship arrangements including research and recommendations on ways to improve the nation’s guardianship system.

Although guardians provide a valuable and essential service for many older Americans, from deciding where an individual will live and when to seek medical care to choosing if family members are allowed to visit and how to spend retirement savings, unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight have used legal guardianship proceedings to obtain control of vulnerable individuals and have then used that power to liquidate assets and life-time savings for their own personal gains.

Last April, the Committee held the first hearing in a two-part series this year on the abuse of power and exploitation of older Americans by guardians. The Committee also held a hearing on guardianship in 2016. The Nov. 28th hearing is a continuation of the Committee’s longstanding commitment to bring awareness and prevention to the financial exploitation of older Americans.

Putting the Spotlight on Unscrupulous Guardians

U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, put the legislative spotlight on this important legal issue and released the Committee’s 34-page report at the Wednesday hearing titled, “Ensuring Trust: Strengthening State Efforts to Overhaul the Guardianship Process and Protect Older Americans.”

The released Senate Aging Committee report is the culmination of a year-long examination of ways in which the legal system can be improved to better protect individuals subject to these and similar arrangements from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It addresses three key areas – the importance of guardianship oversight, alternatives to guardianship, and the need for improved data and it makes 13 recommendations.

“An estimated 1.3 million adults are under the care of guardians – family members or professionals – who control approximately $50 billion of their assets,” said Collins, in her opening statement. “Guardianship is a legal relationship created by a court that is designed to protect those with diminished or lost capacity. We found, however, that in many cases, the system lacks basic protections leaving the most vulnerable Americans at risk of exploitation.,” she said.

“While most guardians act in the best interest of the individual they care for, far too often, we have heard horror stories of guardians who have abused, neglected or exploited a person subject to guardianship. As our report notes, there are persistent and widespread problems with guardianship arrangements nationwide,” says Casey in his opening statement. “This is why Senator Collins and I introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act to begin reforming the guardianship system to ensure the protection of seniors under guardian care from losing their rights, savings or possessions because a guardian abused their power,” he said.

Fixing the Nation’s Guardianship System

The Senate Aging Committee took testimony from four guardianship experts who gave their thoughts as to how to improve the system.

Cate Boyko, Senior Court Research Associate at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), explained that the state court data it collected revealed that none of the states was able to fully report all the information on guardianships they requested. They found that the most serious issues involved local court authority, lack of standardized reporting, and limited technology.

Bethany Hamm, Acting Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, provided background information on the state’s Adult Protect Services and public guardianship program. Hamm discussed Maine Uniform Probate Code (UPC) enacted during the state’s last legislative session. The Maine UPC takes effect in July of next year and requires private guardians to report annually on the condition of the adult and account for money and other property in guardians’ possession or subject to guardians’ control.

Karen Buck, Executive Director at the Pennsylvania-based SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit legal services agency, described the work her organization does to tackle issues such as guardianship through free legal representation, education, and advocacy for older Americans in Pennsylvania. She argued that guardianship remains an “important tool” to provide care for vulnerable seniors and therefore merits attention and reform.

Finally, Barbara Buckley, Executive Director at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, described the steps that her state has taken since 2014 to better protect individuals under guardianship. One year later, the Nevada Supreme Court created a Guardianship Commission to examine the guardianship system and recommend reforms., she said, detailing three significant areas of reform implemented in Nevada: the right to counsel, the protected person’s Bill of Rights and other statutory reforms, and the establishment of the Guardianship Compliance Office.

As a result of the Senate Aging Committee’s work to examine issues surrounding guardianship, Collins and Casey announced at this hearing that they were introducing the Guardianship Accountability Act. This bipartisan legislation would promote information sharing among courts and local organizations as well as state and federal agencies, encourage the use of background checks and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and expand the availability of federal grants to improve the guardianship system.

Congress Must Act

One of the report’s recommended actions to strengthen guardianship arrangements is for courts to conduct criminal background checks on ALL prospective guardians. To aid states in this pursuit, Casey and Collin’s legislation, the “Guardianship Accountability Act,” promotes oversight of guardianship arrangements and encourages information sharing among government agencies and with other relevant organizations. This bill would also allow states to fund data collection on guardianship arrangements and conduct background checks on guardians.

According to the National Center for State Courts, there are approximately 1.3 million adults and an estimated $50 billion of assets under guardianship arrangements. State courts are tasked with monitoring guardianships in order to protect individuals subject to guardianship from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Despite this responsibility, few states are able to provide courts with adequate resources to monitor guardianships effectively and hold guardians accountable.

When the new Congress begins, hopefully this legislation will sail through both chambers of Congress and be quickly signed by President Donald Trump. We will see…

To get the Senate Aging Committee’s guardianship report, go to http://www.aging.senate.
gov/imo/media/doc/Guardianship%20Report.pdf.

For a copy of the Guardianship Accountability Act, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/
Guardianship%20Accountability%20Act%20of%202018.pdf.

To watch the one hour and forty-seven-minute Senate Aging Committee hearing, go to http://www.aging.senate.
gov/hearings/ensuring-trust-strengthening-state-efforts-to-overhaul-the-guardianship-process-and-protect-older-americans.

Senate Aging Panel Releases its 2018 Fraud Book

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 1, 2018

In early March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging again put the spotlight on common fraud schemes directed at America’s seniors at a panel hearing, “Stopping Senior Scams.” At the Senate panel hearing, held in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the Committee officially released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to its Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of frauds targeting seniors around the country, clearly revealing the extent of this epidemic.

Last year, the most prevalent scam reported to the Committee’s Hotline, detailed in the Senate Aging Committee’s 56-page 2018 Fraud Book, was the IRS Impersonation Scam in which con artists call, pretending to be IRS representatives, to collect payment of taxes and threaten arrest if payment is not immediately made by phone (During tax filing season, seniors and others should be on high alert for scam artists claiming to be the IRS).

The March 7th hearing was the third hearing this Congress—and the 12th in the past three years—that the Senate Aging Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. These hearings c=examined notoriously widespread scams including the IRS imposter scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, computer tech support scams, grandparent scams, elder financial exploitation, and identity theft.

“This Committee’s dedication to fighting fraud against older Americans is raising awareness and it is making a real difference,” said Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME), of the Senate Aging Committee, in her opening remarks. “Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it has charged more than 250 people with stealing more than half billion dollars from more than a million Americans. This is the largest ever law enforcement action to protect our nation’s seniors from fraud,” noted Collins.

Seniors Lose Billions in Exploitation Schemes and Scams

Collins called the “stakes extremely high” in fighting against the skyrocketing incidence of senior fraud, noting that according to the Government Accountability Office, older American’s lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

Ranking Member, Bob Casey (D-PA), called for more aggressive action to be taken “to ensure that not one more senior loses another penny to a con artist.” The Pennsylvania Senator called for working more closely with businesses to create “another line of defense to help prevent assets from ever leaving the hands of unsuspecting victims.”

Witnesses Stephen and Rita Shiman from Saco, ME, came to share and educate others as to how they fell victim to a grandparent scam. During his testimony, Shiman acknowledged the special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. “The scammers knew this well and took full advantage of it with my wife and myself. They knew that when a grandchild is in trouble, grandparents go all out to help,” he said.

With over 20 years working as a lead volunteer with Pennsylvania, chairing the nonprofits Consumer Issue Task Force, Witness Mary Bach explained how her 15-member task force team from across the commonwealth keep residents of all ages educated about current scams sweeping the state. She stated, “[w]e know that education is power, and when someone hears the specifics of a scam they are much less likely to be victimized. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam!”

Witness Doug Shadel, State Director of AARP Washington State. testified about the current state of fraud targeting seniors and outlined that impostor scams are still the most prevalent.” In the new age of technology, it is easier than ever for scammers to be someone they are not,” he said, noting that “combining this ability with a tactic to incite fear or excitement upon their victim, paints a very convincing picture, one that has enabled scammers to easily take many seniors of their hard-earned savings.”

Finally, Witness Adrienne Omansky of Los Angeles, CA, described how she formed the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program in 2009 after learning from students in her commercial acting class about fraud they had experienced. Over the past few years, this volunteer group has grown significantly and now performs in about 30 venues each year, ranging from small veteran’s halls to a large convention center. As part of her testimony, Omansky played a few clips of the Public Service Announcements her group has recorded and shared several of the lessons the members of her acting program have learned through their own performances, including that seniors are often more comfortable learning about scams from their peers.

AARP Fights Against Senior Fraud

AARP recognized early on that older Americans are extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem and getting worse. That’s why our organization has made a significant investment in public outreach as well as a free alert system available to our members as well as the general public.

“One aspect of prevention that has been our focus is explaining to people how con artists operate. We hired Frank Abagnale, the real-life former con man depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, as a national spokesman. His job is to help people spot a con. He goes way beyond “if it’s too good to be true.” Abagnale explains the psychological triggers that con artists employ to snag even the seemingly brightest and most cautious victims. This is laid out in our free publication The Con Artists Playbook. It is a hand out at events and presentations we’ve been conducting across the state the past three years.

“The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free service,” Connell continued. “Sign up and you will receive email alerts on the latest scams. One of our Fraud Watch presenters is fond of saying that when you hear about a scam on the TV news it is natural to say, ’I’d never fall for that. ’Maybe, he tells audiences, it’s only because you were just warned. That’s the thing. It’s the new scam that you haven’t heard about that is especially dangerous. In addition to the alerts, you can report scans so the word spreads as new cons make the rounds. There’s also a national fraud hotline (877-908-3360) with specialists who take on any questions. And an online map allows you identify scams reported in your area. We urge everyone to check out the Web site (www. fraudwatchnetwork.org) to learn more.”

For a copy of the 2018 Senate Aging Committee Fraud Book, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf.

Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response

Published in the Woonsocket call on October 8, 2017

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, after the death of at least nine nursing facility residents due to heat-related illness due to sweltering heat at a Hollywood, Florida-based facility that had lost power to run its air conditioner, the Senate Special Committee on Aging put the spotlight on the challenges facing seniors during natural disasters at a hearing on Sept. 20, 2017.

News coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey provided heartbreaking reminders that seniors and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during a natural disaster. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted care facility for dementia patients lost electrical power for three days, causing 20 seniors to suffer from high indoor temperatures. Meanwhile, in Dickinson, Texas, a widely-shared photo showed elderly residents of an assisted-living center awaiting rescue as flood waters rose waist deep inside the facility.

Heeding the Lessons from Past Disasters

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, more than half of those who died were seniors, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Since that devastating storm, disaster response officials have placed much emphasis at the national, state, and local level to better protect older Americans during an emergency.

“As we have learned from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, some of our neighbors – especially seniors – face many obstacles during a crisis, and we must focus on the attention older adults may need,” said Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee in a statement announcing the Senate panel hearing held in 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

In her testimony, Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo the former health commissioner for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, noted that medical records for most patients at the time of Katrina were kept only on paper and were destroyed, “turning to useless bricks,” or lost because of the disaster. For clinicians, treating patients who lost their medicines became a major challenge, she said.

Creating Registries to Protect the Vulnerable

Since Katrina, the New Orleans Health Department has been “working aggressively, to create a medical special needs digitized registry to maintain a list of high-risk individuals, those most in need of medical assistance for evacuation during preparations or in response operations, says Dr. DeSalvo

Dr. DeSalvo called for “leveraging data and technology” as a way of creating more efficient and effective strategies of identifying the most vulnerable in a community. All communities could create such registries by using state Medicaid data to locate where residents who are electricity-dependent live. The electronic system, called emPOWER, is available for use nationally, and she recommended Congress fund training exercises to respond to disasters. response.

A witness, Jay Delaney, fire chief and management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suggests that Congress continue to fully fund the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Investing in surveillance tools can enhance decision making by making crucial weather data available before, during, and after a disaster.

For nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place emergency plans, says Delaney, but for those who stubbornly choose to not leave their homes during a disaster, preparedness for those is a “tough nut to crack.”

“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Mam or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.

In his testimony, Paul Timmons Jr., CEO and president of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, proposed the establishment of a National Center for Excellence inclusive Disability and Aging Emergency Management to improve emergency management responses to disasters to reduce injuries and save lives. “The initial focus of the center should include community engagement, leadership, training and exercise development, evacuation, sheltering, housing and universal accessibility,” he said, suggesting a five-year, $1 billion budget.

Finally, Witness Kathryn Hyer, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, provided eight tips for the Senate Aging panel to protect seniors during disasters. She called for emergency plan for nursing homes and assisted living; required generators to support generators in the event of a power failure, more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in place; construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; identification of and prioritization for nursing homes and assisted living communities by state and local management organizations for restoration of services; litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios; and continued commitment to geriatric education programs.

Prioritizing Senior’s Needs in Disasters

On Sept. 26, one week after the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on disaster preparedness and seniors, Senators Collins and Casey called for a swift federal response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In correspondence to three federal agencies, they urged the Administration to take all available steps to act swiftly and prioritize seniors in the response to Hurricane Maria The senators also urged the federal agencies to prioritize not only patients in acute health care facilities, but individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as seniors living at home.

“We urge the Administration to heed the lessons of the recent hurricane response efforts in Florida and Texas and take all available steps to prioritize seniors in the response to this devastating storm,” the senators wrote. “Seniors must be quickly identified and resources deployed to ensure that no older American is left in unbearable heat without air conditioning or without water and food as response efforts continue… During this recovery period, it is even more important to multiply our efforts and deploy sufficient resources to support and rescue seniors.

It has been reported that the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes and the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing. With a high concentration of people and properties in coastal areas were hurricanes strike, it become crucial to learn emergency management lessons gleaned from past hurricanes and disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Irma. The Senate Select Committee on Aging is on the right track in seeking ways to put disaster emergency preparedness on the nation’s policy agenda. Now, it’s time for Congressional standing committees to adequate fund FEMA and the National Weather Service and strengthen emergency preparedness laws.