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High court’s guardianship panel plans first meeting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The public on Friday will get its first chance to address a new state Supreme Court committee that will dive into the complex issue of whether the state’s adult guardian/conservator system is in need of reform.

The 16-member guardianship study commission will take public comment from 9:30 a.m. to noon on suggested changes and improvement to the state guardianship system. The meeting is expected to run until 4 p.m.

Barry Massey, a Supreme Court spokesman, said the guardianship commission has not yet mapped out the full scope of its work, but there have been preliminary discussions about reviewing the efforts of other states to improve their guardianship systems.

One noted program is in Palm Beach County, Fla., where court clerk and comptroller Sharon R. Bock, who is elected, has made guardianship fraud enforcement a priority. She oversees a staff of guardianship auditors who look for fraud, waste and financial mismanagement despite office budget cuts of 36 percent since 2009.

Bock, in a recent interview with the Journal, said her agency has been asked to provide information on best practices to groups around the country, from Portland, Ore., to Tennessee. Last May, she and her staff spent several hours speaking with the Nevada Supreme Court commission studying guardianship reform.

In March of this year, a former court-ordered financial guardian from a private firm in Las Vegas, Nev., was arrested and charged in an exploitation scheme involving more than $550,000 allegedly stolen from 150 people.

Bock’s agency, which runs a guardian fraud hotline, has identified more than $5.1 million in missing assets and fraud involving guardianships since 2011.

The Palm Beach County program last fall was recognized at the 4th Congress for Adult Guardianship in Berlin.

“We know there are honorable, hardworking guardians out there, but when you have a $270 billion industry that is unregulated, you’re always going to be getting your bad apples,” Bock told the Journal. “This is literally taking us by surprise, and we’re not prepared as a society for this.”

District courts in New Mexico oversee thousands of cases in which relatives or nonrelatives, including for-profit companies, are appointed as guardians or conservators for a adults deemed incapacitated or for those who lack the capacity to manage some or all of their personal or financial affairs.

The state Supreme Court earlier this month decided to appoint the commission, which includes current and former judges, to recommend changes in state statutes, funding, administrative practices or other proposals to improve the guardianship system. Wendy York, an Albuquerque attorney and a former state district judge, is chairwoman of the commission.

The commission is to submit an initial status report to the Supreme Court by Oct. 1 and continue its work until completing a final report and recommendations.

The commission’s creation comes amid an ongoing Journal investigation into criticism from family members whose relatives have been placed with for-profit guardians and conservators whose fees typically are deducted from the incapacitated person’s assets.

Some families complain their relatives have been neglected by court-appointed guardians; they question expenses that have drained their loved ones’ estates, and they say they’ve been stymied by confidentiality provisions in the law from learning about their relatives’ living status and finances.

Those who defend the current system say that the secrecy is designed to protect the privacy of the incapacitated persons and that guardians and conservators appointed by the courts serve an important role, particularly in cases involving feuding family members.

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