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How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

Joy Powers woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and stripped of her rights. Months later, court-appointed fees drained her life savings

Photo: , License: N/A

A Bexar County court twice investigated whether Jack Hood was incapacitated when he contested a guardianship case involving his wife of 35 years.


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In 2005 the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and Governor Rick Perry declared an overhaul of Adult Protective Services and Child Protective Services as a matter of legislative emergency, the concern being that state caseworkers had routinely failed to notify courts when clients were in danger, often with tragic consequences. Lawmakers made major changes to the human resources and probate codes, Valdez says, changes aimed at ensuring protections for at-risk elderly.

Since then, an industry of nonprofit and for-profit guardianship organizations have popped up across Texas with paid, certified guardians who benefit financially from those whose lives they oversee. All of this comes with little state oversight or monitoring to ensure the well-being of the "ward," as people thrown into guardianship are called in court.

"We're seeing aging Texans placed under guardianshp by these agencies apparently just because they're old, or that they have substantial financial resources and assets," Valdez said. There's no statewide agency with oversight of guardianship, meaning each individual probate court shoulders the responsibility. Families in North Texas have emerged as the loudest critics of the current system, many of which have traveled to Austin since 2010 to testify at state hearings.

In some of the state's largest counties, like Bexar, so many people are shuffled into guardianship that each probate judge sees as many as 3,000 wards, and most courts only have a single investigator to check out potential problems. Bexar County Probate Court 1 Judge Polly Jackson Spencer estimated Bexar County juggles as many as 4,000 to 6,000 guardianship cases.

"We're seeing an increasing number. We've been a great deal more active in actually encouraging people to report to us when they believe a person may be incapacitated and in need of a guardian," Spencer said. In some cases, she said, family members might even quietly prod the court to initiate a guardianship proceeding "so they don't come off as the bad guy."

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The Texas Guardianship Certification Board was created in 2006 with the goal of making sure private professional guardians appointed by courts were competent and qualified. Over 3,000 people across Texas are now under the control of a handful of private professional guardianship programs, and the Waco-based nonprofit Friends for Life has 86 cases on file in Bexar County. Some of the individual private professional guardians, according to state records, are charged with controlling the lives of as many as 120 individuals at any given time.

Three such private professional guardians, two of whom are active probate attorneys in Bexar County courts, keep watch over 38 people with guardianship cases here.

Since its activation in 2007, the state's GCB has received 28 complaints from families, advocates, and even judges, and some of those cases highlight the potential pitfalls of guardianship.

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