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Report: Legal guardian system fails many Ohioans

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The court-appointed guardian system created to help Ohio's elderly and mentally disabled residents and children has failed many it serves and allows unscrupulous guardians to rob their wards of freedom, dignity and money, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The newspaper's investigation of the system that controls the lives of about 65,000 Ohioans found that even judges overseeing the system say it is broken, The Columbus Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1o40nos ) reported.

Ohio's system has ripped apart families, rendered the mentally ill voiceless, and left some elderly Ohioans dying penniless in nursing homes, according to the newspaper.

Probate judges in Ohio's 88 counties direct the system without detailed state guidelines and often amid overloaded court dockets. The Dispatch's yearlong investigation showed some lawyers appointed as guardians have been allowed to ignore elderly and mentally ill people while placing them in the lowest-rated nursing home and some lawyers have billed wards for thousands of dollars in questionable legal fees for routine tasks such as paying utility bills.

Other failings found included a severely autistic man whose weight rose to 513 pounds because his guardian — his mother— allowed him to gorge on junk food and microwave dinners despite caseworkers' warnings. One guardian's failures also separated an elderly couple married for 45 years in their final year, and an eccentric woman forced into guardianship against her will was left broke and homeless.

The newspaper's survey of Ohio's probate courts found that nearly 90 percent do not require credit checks for prospective guardians, and as many as 61 percent don't require criminal-background checks of guardians entrusted with the assets and care of vulnerable people.

Guardians are required in most counties to submit paper status reports about their wards only every two years and probate courts are not required to independently verify reports. A few counties require monthly visits, but more than three-quarters of the state's probate courts don't require guardians to ever meet with their wards.

More than 80 percent of Ohio probate courts do not conduct financial audits or random in-home inspections, according to 72 of 88 counties responding to the survey. Also, more than two-thirds of Ohio's counties don't track cases that had been investigated for possible wrongdoing or that had been forwarded to local law-enforcement agencies.

Attorney General Mike DeWine said he was disgusted by revealed abuses and lack of court oversight.

"I think it's certainly crying out for reform," he said of the system. "And some sort of standards are certainly very, very much needed."

Demand for guardianships will grow as the number of people 65 or older in the United States doubles by 2050, and Ohioans caught in the system are expected to see more neglect and abuse unless there are significant changes, the Dispatch reported.

A committee designated by the Ohio Supreme Court nearly eight years ago to devise new rules has proposed changes, which the court is scheduled to decide on after a public comment period ends June 25.

But Julia R. Nack, one of two nationally certified master guardians in Ohio and a former probate court investigator, said that while the committee's proposals are better than nothing, they don't go far enough.

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