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Editorial: Who guards the guardians?

Much has changed for the better since the Journal published an investigative series in November and December of 2017 titled “Who Guards the Guardians.”

Those stories by reporter Diane Dimond detailed complaints about a secretive system. Critics, most often family members of incapacitated people, complained about having little recourse to abuses that ranged from overspending and mishandling of assets to virtual carte blanche authority by court-appointed guardians and conservators to ignore and override the wishes of families when it came to concerns for their loved ones.

Despite heated denials by many within the system that anything was wrong, Journal Investigative Reporter Colleen Heild continued to probe complaints of abuse and misconduct. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court took notice and along with other reforms established a process that has led to more transparency and created an avenue in which family members and others can petition the courts to address their grievances.

Justices Charles Daniels, who passed away in 2019 after retiring from the court, and Judith Nakamura were instrumental in advancing reforms. So were retired District Judge Wendy York of Albuqueque, who headed a Supreme Court-appointed commission to study the issue, and District Judge Shannon Bacon of Albuquerque, who is now a Supreme Court justice.

So it was fitting that Bacon announced last week that the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office will now have a permanent watchdog function over the nearly 6,000 cases in which state district courts have appointed guardians and conservators to manage the affairs of those deemed incapacitated.

The announcement followed a one-year pilot project undertaken by State Auditor Brian Colón, whose auditors found 194 “risk factors” in annual reports filed among more than 300 conservator cases sampled. The factors included lack of supporting documentation, conflicting information, and the fact that assets of the protected person being were understated or unaccounted for. Auditors also found instances of checks written directly to conservators. Or conservators charging large fees for services or reimbursements of expenses. The auditors sent more than 40 letters to judges in the cases laying out the concerns.

This kind of outside oversight is unprecedented.

With a green light from the judiciary, Colón’s office will now have oversight and involvement in what had traditionally been a closed system that sometimes excluded even family members of the incapacitated person. Colón appeared with Bacon on a Zoom video conference to make the announcement.

“We have an opportunity to step up oversight …” Colón said. “We’ve got to fill in the cracks (in the system) so we know those most vulnerable don’t fall through.”

Bacon said the courts and Legislature have already added more transparency to the system and enhanced reporting requirements. Now, she said, the courts plan to implement measures “to give auditors open access to guardianship and conservatorship cases.” Bacon said the auditors have been granted special access to online reports that typically aren’t public.

On the issue of reporting, though, Colón’s auditors recommended guardians and conservators provide supporting documentation instead of simply listing the amounts of assets and expenditures on standardized forms filed with the district courts.

The Supreme Court can make that happen by adopting a rule requiring it.

The auditor’s report also recommended “increased focus on review of financial affairs of protected persons with substantial assets.” That makes sense.

The state auditor also said the recent criminal sentences of two of four defendants in the now-defunct Ayudando Guardians Inc. underscored the need for more oversight in New Mexico. The company’s top officials stole millions of dollars from clients to finance a lavish lifestyle in a nearly decade-long scheme.

In contrast with a closed system that appeared to stonewall complaints, Bacon and Colón urged people with concerns to fill out a grievance form found on the state Supreme Court website. The forms are to be submitted to the district court where the case is filed. Colón said a copy also can be sent to his office.

In another major step forward, Bacon said the judiciary wants Colón’s office to be able to do random audits and go to banking institutions to review records, if needed. The details are still to be worked out with the courts.

“This ongoing process and partnership,” Bacon said, “is how we increase the sunshine and avoid the abuses of the past.”

The judiciary, lawmakers and the auditor all deserve credit for the work they’ve done. Now is the time to push ahead on the rest of the reform items to prevent the exploitation of incapacitated New Mexicans and give a voice to their loved ones.

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.





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