New investigation highlights disarray in New York state guardianship system

New York’s guardianship system — where people deemed unfit to care for themselves are placed in the hands of third parties — has for years left thousands of residents isolated and sometimes in squalor, a new investigation by ProPublica found.

Judges and state examiners are required by a state law passed in 1992 to oversee the vast number of New Yorkers who lose control of their lives and finances. But the investigation found just a dozen judges and 157 examiners oversee more than 17,000 guardianship cases in the city.

The lack of oversight has dire consequences. ProPublica found that several nonprofits are each assigned hundreds of wards – people deemed unfit to care for themselves – through the system. Some of those nonprofits have misled state officials about the quality of care they provide.

ProPublica shared the investigation exclusively with Gothamist and WNYC.

The guardianship system has mostly gained attention through cases involving celebrities like Britney Spears and Brooke Astor. The new investigation highlights how some poor, vulnerable New Yorkers are neglected by the same guardians tasked with protecting them.

In one case, Judith Zbiegniewicz — an elderly New Yorker suffering from depression and anxiety after her father’s death — entered guardianship after someone reported her to Adult Protective Services. Her life went into a downward spiral as the nonprofit in charge of her care ignored years of complaints about dreadful living conditions. The nonprofit withdraws $450 in monthly compensation from its wards’ accounts while providing as little care as possible, according to former employees and court documents examined by ProPublica.

The 1992 law reformed the state’s guardianship system with the goal of preventing wards from being exploited by their guardians. The law’s drafters intended to give those in the system more independence, but ProPublica found the process is now in disarray with little oversight.

Kristin Booth Glen, a former judge who helped write the state’s main guardianship statute known as Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law, said many guardians today are lacking in their ability to actually help their clients.

“A guardian is supposed to take care of them but that takes a lot of time, because the more problems you have, the fewer resources you have, the harder it is to take care of those problems,” Glen told Gothamist. “So the answer is throw them into crappy nursing homes and let them die.”

Glen also said that in an ideal world, improved social services would result in fewer elderly or poor people needing guardianship.

ProPublica reported that becoming a guardian in New York only requires taking a daylong course, which is significantly less training than in other states like California or Florida.

According to experts, it is easy for people to be placed into guardianship, but very difficult for them to get out. For example, if an elderly person or someone with mental health issues is reported to Adult Protective Services by a concerned neighbor or family member, it doesn’t take long for the court to intervene.

“Once the petition gets before a judge, it can take on a life of its own,” said Joe Rosenberg, the co-director of CUNY School of Law’s Disability and Aging Clinic. “That’s part of the problem.”

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