>A nonpartisan federal report released in the fall warned of flaws in the guardianship system that leave vulnerable people open to exploitation similar to that detailed in a criminal complaint against an Appleton man accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients.
The report from the Government Accountability Board is the latest to raise a red flag about the system. A 2007 study released by U.S. Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, and Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., suggested improvements to safeguard people who rely on guardians, and a 2006 report by the AARP Public Policy Institute cautioned that checks on guardians were lax.
Jeffrey M. Schend, who owns the company Outagamie County hired to serve as guardian for 48 people, hasn’t told investigators where about $500,000 went after disappearing from some clients’ accounts. But there were signs Schend wasn’t properly reporting financial transactions, including a $4,700 judgment Shawano County won against him in 2010 for his mishandling of a client’s account.
Sylvia Rudek, a director of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, says Wisconsin’s system is weighted so heavily in favor of confidentiality that it prevents adequate oversight of guardians, who are hired mostly by counties after a court has determined a person cannot make safe and sound financial decisions. Most of the people represented by guardians are mentally ill, disabled or elderly.
Rudek said she ran into roadblock after roadblock after learning that a guardian had stolen more than $78,000 from her great-aunt, a Wisconsin resident. Though the guardian, Kathleen Simane, ultimately was sentenced to two years in prison on two theft convictions by a Rock County judge, Rudek said getting the case into the criminal justice system took Herculean efforts.
“We had no idea of what was going on,” Rudek said. “I couldn’t get any information.”
In many states, she said, families can examine a guardian’s books, but Wisconsin keeps those records sealed.
“The legislators will tell you the files are closed to protect the ward,” she said, using a term often applied to a person represented by a guardian. “In reality, closed files protect the guardian team from oversight.”
The report released in September by the federal Government Accountability Office backs up Rudek’s contention that guardians are not properly supervised.
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Study: Guardian System Flaws Allow for Exploitation