Efforts to Reform New Mexico’s system of court-approved guardianships for the elderly have met with frustration and failure – to the chagrin of families caught up in a system many say leaves them as helpless bystanders when a loved one is declared a ward of the court with no say in his or her life.
No one knows that frustration better than former Rep. Conrad James, an Albuquerque Republican.
James, who did not seek re-election last year, carried legislation in 2016 that addressed a frequently heard complaint: that guardians or conservators who become annoyed with family members can – and do – arbitrarily bar (or sharply curtail) them from visiting an aging family member who has become a “protected person.”
James’ bill would have required judicial approval before visitation could be cut off – and only if a clear danger to the ward could be demonstrated.
“I have carried a number of controversial bills,” James told the Journal. “I have never received, or seen in a committee hearing, the kind of anger and blowback that I saw with this bill – one that I thought was a very commonsense, straightforward bill.”
James attributed the blowback to lawyer-lobbyists who work in the elder guardianship system or who have associates who do.
The legislation’s fate was particularly disheartening to reform advocates, who say the best safeguard against elder exploitation is to keep a trusted family member close to the protected person as an extra set of eyes. In the past, some elders who have been isolated from their families have died without being able to see their adult children for months or years.
James isn’t alone in watching a guardianship reform proposal killed. Other lawmakers who have sought to address complaints about the guardianship system in previous years have fared no better.
And lawmakers considering introduction of elder guardian reform measures this year threw in the towel before they even introduced the legislation, when leadership in the Democrat-controlled Legislature made it clear no legislative solutions would be entertained this session.
The Albuquerque Journal published a six-part investigative series on the guardianship system late last year, detailing how it is administered and the devastating effects critics say it can have on an aging person who becomes a “ward of the court” and their families.
James, a Sandia National Laboratories scientist who has also served as a University of New Mexico regent, is among those who believe reform is urgently needed in a system that routinely declares mentally frail elders “incapacitated” and with that designation strips them of their civil rights. They no longer have the power to manage their own affairs – from health care to finances.
“I’m a scientist and engineer,” James said. “I’m perfectly willing to have a 60 percent solution to get the ball rolling on something. Some legislators want to get it to 80 or 85 percent.”
“We can’t sit around and wait for perfect.”
He worries that bad things could happen to good families while solutions to the problem are put off year after year.
Acting at the request of a lawyer – who often represents one family member who is aligned against others – judges typically appoint strangers recommended by that lawyer to take both personal and financial control of an elderly person’s life. In many cases, there is little subsequent court supervision or auditing of their actions. (Click to Continue)
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Guardianship reforms DOA in New Mexico