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Editorial: Lawmakers can’t afford NOT to fix guardianship system

In cash-strapped New Mexico, there really is no such thing as a “small price to pay.” There is legitimate competition for every dollar the state spends.

But in the great scheme of things, the $1 million estimated cost to finance improved oversight and accountability in the state’s scandal-plagued guardianship system that operates largely under court oversight would be money well spent.

To put the request in context, it’s abundantly clear that the current oversight system hasn’t stopped some of the state’s most vulnerable residents from having their assets stolen, their homes sold off and the wishes of families completely disregarded by commercial guardians and conservators appointed by judges around the state. There have been legitimate complaints of exorbitant fees charged by the industry and families being cut off from their loved ones simply for complaining about the treatment Mom or Dad is getting.

That’s why the State Supreme Court appointed a special commission to come up with recommendations for ways to improve the system. The commission chaired by retired state District Judge Wendy York has proposed 17 changes – separate from modifications proposed in a rewrite of guardianship/conservatorship laws by the Chicago-based Uniform Laws Commission. Among the Uniform Law Commission proposals is a change that would roll back the blanket of secrecy that shrouds guardianships in New Mexico, and allows chicanery, abuse and outright theft to be hidden away.

Nothing better illustrates the problem of a system dominated by insiders than the fact that one of the guardianship industry representatives who spoke to the commission in defense of the system is now facing federal criminal charges for allegedly draining client accounts to finance a lavish lifestyle.

The Supreme Court’s commission has some recommendations that simply require better practices for guardians/conservators and the judges who oversee them. But others require about $1 million in state money.

The appropriation would allow the state to purchase computer software that would red-flag unusual purchases and discrepancies in annual reports that guardians and conservators are supposed to file with the court.

Many of the reports have been shoddy, bare-bones documents filed late and then stuffed into court files. Software won’t fix that. But with better reporting required by the courts, the new system would allow for electronic filing with some built-in warnings. The new money also would pay for auditors who would investigate discrepancies. Equally important, it would pay for special masters or hearing officers to hear grievances from families whose loved ones are in the guardianship system. Under the current system, these family members have no effective recourse or even a reasonable way to complain in a timely fashion.

The special masters should be able to act as “outsiders” in a system dominated by “insiders” to advocate for families where their claims have merit. Just having that avenue of recourse will curb some abuses by those who now operate with impunity.

The Supreme Court can make some changes by rule. But Gov. Susana Martinez and the 2018 Legislature need to step up to the plate, enact statutory changes where necessary and fund the modest amount requested by the commission.

The state is far from rolling in dough, but it has weathered the recent fiscal crisis and now has an estimated $500 million in reserves. The latest projection estimates lawmakers will have about $199 million in “new” revenue to spend when they convene next month.

The revelations over the past year about the guardianship system in New Mexico have been shocking. The Supreme Court and lawmakers have an opportunity to change many lives for the better, now and in the future.

They shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.