ND lawmakers backing some guardianship changes

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers on Tuesday backed strengthening the rights of vulnerable people who are candidates for a guardian's care, but were cautious about pushing for a complete overhaul of the state's guardianship system.

Guardians are appointed by judges to take charge of the affairs of people who can no longer look after themselves, including people with dementia, brain injuries, developmental disabilities and the frail elderly. Government and nonprofit agencies often take on the job when the person's relatives cannot.

About 2,000 North Dakotans have guardians, and the state averages about 300 new requests each year. North Dakota's guardian services are now provided by a network of county officials, nonprofit and religious groups, and the state Department of Human Services.

Last year, the North Dakota Legislature ordered a review of the state's guardianship system. The Legislature's interim Human Services Committee hired a consultant for the task, who recommended setting up an independent state office to hire and supervise guardians statewide.

The committee on Tuesday endorsed drafting legislation, suggested by state Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, to assure a number of procedural safeguards for people who face the prospect of having a guardian put in charge of their lives.

The protections include requiring that a person who is a candidate for guardianship be briefed on the process and his or her rights; that the person be notified of any hearing and have the right to attend; and reducing the amount of time a person can be under an emergency guardianship from 90 days to 60 days.

The changes were suggested by the consultant, who also recommended setting up an independent agency to administer the state's guardianship system.

Other options would be to leave the guardianship system job in the hands of counties, or putting the state Supreme Court in charge of it, the report said.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Alon Wieland, R-West Fargo, said the panel needed more time to examine each proposal's cost and potential implications.

Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, suggested a phased-in approach, saying it was unwise to sweep all types of guardianships under the same umbrella.

Hogan, who is a retired Cass County social services administrator, said developmentally disabled North Dakotans who have guardians already have an aid network that looks after most of their needs.

Elderly people who are not disabled, and who need guardians, do not have the same support, Hogan said.

"I'd be cautious about making a massive change in a system that works, where you have had long-term, stable relationships," she said. "I think we have a need to start a new system, but be careful about tinkering with the current system that's working."

Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said some of the consultant's recommendations on strengthening the rights of people who were candidates for guardianship could cause problems of their own.

The consultant said people who face losing their rights to a guardian should have the right to a jury trial, which is an option not offered to people who are involuntarily committed for treatment of mental illnesses, VandeWalle said.

North Dakota's present system does need more oversight, the chief justice said. For example, guardians' reports on their wards — a term used to describe people under their care — are filed with state courts, but there is no requirement that judges read them, and courts do not have the staff needed to check their veracity, VandeWalle said.

"Very few of these people write on their report, 'I just stole $5,000 from the ward," VandeWalle said. "If no one comes in to the judge and says there's something wrong, that report passes."