Guardianship reform advances after judges, victims share concerns

Judge Susan Bazis testifies before the Judiciary Committee. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Testimony before the legislature's Judiciary Committee. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Judith Widener and guardianship court filings. (Photo courtesy Scotts Bluff County Attorney)
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February 13, 2014 - 6:30am

The Nebraska State Legislature will consider a plan to reform the state’s guardianship system. 


The bill (LB 920) advanced by the Judiciary Committee would budget around $1 million to create a new office of guardianship under the supervision of the state Supreme Court. 

While Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman has yet to weigh in, there appears to be little resistance in the state Legislature to the idea of overhauling the system. Currently Nebraska is the only state in the nation that does not provide such a service for elderly, disabled or children unable to manage their own finances or make critical life choices.   

In most cases a family member or acquaintance will be appointed by a county court judge to assist. However, the pool of volunteers to help has nearly disappeared according to judges across the state, leaving them little choice but to appoint sometimes unwilling and in some cases unscrupulous guardians. 

State Senator Colby Coash listens during testimony on guardianship reform.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln advocates a change in the system that currently relies on volunteers, whether they are family members or helpful community members.  “Beyond that the courts don’t have much of another option (when) there is no family member who is willing or able to step in,” Coash told NET News.

The bill sponsored by Coash would create an entirely new office employing 20 trained caseworkers available to be appointed as guardians when a court has no other option.  A review of current court cases by a state commission dealing with the issue estimated there are currently around 400 people in need of the service.   

Coash has been emphasizing Nebraska is the only state in the union that has no central office for guardianship.  “What my bill does is mirror what is done in 49 other states,” he said.

Recently Nebraska state senators on the Judiciary Committee took testimony from people with first-hand, and in some cases disturbing, experiences with guardians. 

Judge Curtis Evans recently retired as a county court judge after more than 36 years on the bench.  Before retiring he became a driving force in reforming what he saw as a broken guardianship system.  

Retired Judge Curtis Evans testifies.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

He told the committee there are times when he and other judges, desperate for someone to serve as a guardian, would turn to whoever happened to be in court waiting on an unrelated case and appoint them as guardian whether they wanted to help or not.  “’You are here today, you get to be the guardian,’” he recalled telling sometimes startled attorneys.  The judges “shouldn’t do that.  They shouldn’t have to.  But they are doing things just to get by.”

Douglas County Court Judge Susan Bazis, co-chair of the state’s Guardianship Commission, agreed choosing guardians out of desperation served no one’s best interest. “It really seems inconsistent to the best interest of a vulnerable person to appoint someone a guardian conservator that either doesn’t want to accept these responsibilities or can’t perform those duties and that is what we are forced to do today,” she told the committee.  Judge Bazis added “the need is statewide.  It is not an urban or rural issue.”

Sometimes judges have suspicions about the family member’s motives or question whether they are working in the best interest of the ward.  Judge Curtis spoke of his frustration of having to reluctantly retain an unqualified family member on as guardian.  “If there is no discretion, then the judge can do nothing,” Judge Curtis testified.  “You have to give a judge the discretion to protect these people and that is what this bill is about.”

Judge Curtis was one of several county court judges who had a role in the highly publicized case of one guardian given responsibility over hundreds of individuals during the past ten years.

Judith Widener of Bayard, Neb. was charged with felony theft for misdirecting state aid money designated for the disabled and blind into her own bank accounts.  While no charges specify that she stole directly from her wards' personal bank accounts, the Scotts Bluff County attorney continues to review her records, a process which could stretch on for weeks. 

Widener was selected as a guardian by Judge Curtis even while he had suspicions about her conduct. “I didn’t like that, but I didn’t have a choice,” he told the committee.

“When she would receive somebody she would take everything from those people.  Everything.  All their magazine subscriptions, everything was canceled.  Period.  They had nothing,”  Judge Curtis said.

Francis Vogt testifies.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Francis Vogt, a Lincoln woman with an intellectual disability living with mental illness was one of Widener’s wards.  She testified before the Judiciary Committee to “tell my story of Judith Widener and the guardian who didn’t know me.” 

Widener was appointed by a Lancaster County judge even though she lived 400 miles away from Vogt. “Judy was not my choice of guardian, but I had no friends or family that could or who wanted to fill this job for me,” Vogt testified.  “I was stuck with a woman with a woman who lived across the state and did not personally know or care about me.”

Vogt never spoke with Widener directly and the first time her client laid eyes on her was when the guardian’s mug shot appeared in the newspaper after she was charged with theft.  There is no suspicion Widener stole from Vogt, but the Lincoln woman said she learned not to trust her guardian after, as Vogt testified, “She made me a promise she didn’t keep.”  Vogt told the committee Widener promised she would take responsibility for helping her ward move belongings from one care facility to another.  “She never did move my things and I lost a lot of personal items,” Vogt claimed.    

The Judiciary Committee advanced the bill, giving the full Legislature the chance to debate the proposal. 

The Scotts Bluff County attorney continues her investigation into Judith Widener’s multiple guardianships, looking for any evidence she may have misused the personal bank accounts of her wards.  The only charges she faces currently are for the misuse of state aid funds intended to assist her clients.

 

The Administrative Office of the Courts says Widener no longer has oversight of any wards and all have been assigned new guardians by the courts in the counties in which they live. 

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