America’s guardianship system is badly broken, and court-appointed guardians have plundered thousands of helpless people, causing some to die. Some judges appoint their cronies to be guardians, who then take advantage of vulnerable people. Buzzfeed News describes shocking abuses, such as how guardians snatched a teenager with cerebral palsy from school and hid him from his parents; had a successful rheumatologist declared incapacitated after a bout of depression and deprived her of her million-dollar home; and caused the death of a middle-aged man under a do-not-resuscitate order that ignored his wife’s desperate pleas.
America’s guardianship system was intended to be used only in the rare situation where someone is totally incapacitated by a mental or physical infirmity. But it has grown into a vast, lucrative industry that has taken control of the lives of more than a million people, resulting in widespread theft, as well as abuse, neglect, and death for some people.
In local courts that hear guardianship cases, guardians, lawyers, and expert witnesses appear regularly before the same group of judges in an old-boy network tainted by conflicts of interest. They are often paid from the estate of the person whose freedom is taken away, creating perverse incentives to impose guardianships and perpetuate them.
“The judge knows the lawyers, the lawyers know each other,” said Ronald Denman, a former Florida prosecutor and attorney who has fought dozens of guardianships. “The amount of abuse is crazy. You’re going against a rigged system.”
Without being convicted of any crime, those declared incapacitated lose their fundamental constitutional rights. As Buzzfeed notes, “Most freedoms articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: They can lose their rights to vote, marry, start a family, decide where they live, consent to medical treatment, spend their money, seek employment, or own property.”
Thousands of professional guardians, lawyers, and corporations now control assets worth tens of billions of dollars. Some guardians have hundreds of people under their sway. And despite the perception that guardianship is for elderly adults approaching death, the system controls the lives of huge numbers of young people. As Buzzfeed notes,
- People have been abused, neglected, and killed while living under guardianship. BuzzFeed News identified 20 cases in which young or middle-aged people died under questionable circumstances, including murder, severe neglect, or malnourishment. A 31-year-old man was abused by care home staff and buried in concrete for months before his guardian realized he was missing. No charges were brought against her and she is still in charge of 130 people.
- People under guardianship — commonly referred to as wards — have been locked up and isolated from their families and friends, with guardians obtaining restraining orders to keep loved ones at bay. One professional guardian who concealed the whereabouts of a woman’s teenage son declared “I’m mom now” and said she had no problem “taking the noose around” the mother’s “neck and tightening it” to keep them apart…In many states, guardians can force wards to undergo invasive medical procedures including the implantation of contraceptive devices — and in several cases, wards were permanently sterilized….The owner of one major guardianship corporation was given control of hundreds of wards — including young people — despite having been repeatedly accused of domestic abuse and assault involving children.
- Guardians have had scores of younger people placed under do-not-resuscitate orders (DNRs) — including some who have a mental illness but are physically healthy — blocking their access to potentially lifesaving treatment if they fall seriously ill. Several middle-aged people, including a former space shuttle scientist, have died under these orders…
- Professional guardians have stolen tens of millions of dollars from hundreds of people and exploited obscure trust fund laws to conceal their financial activity from the courts. One guardianship nonprofit drained the accounts of more than 800 people, while another professional guardian transferred money from several of her wards’ accounts into a trust controlled by her husband.