By: Steve Kuchera , Duluth News Tribune

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar believes America needs to do more to protect its senior and disabled citizens from abuse and neglect by their guardians.

Toward that end the Minnesota Democrat — who held a round-table meeting on the issue Friday at Duluth’s Keystone Bluffs Assisted Living Residence — has introduced legislation aimed at protecting seniors and vulnerable people.

She bases the need for such protection on her experiences as Hennepin County attorney, on governmental reports and on the tribulations of people like Deanna Van de North.

Van de North of St. Paul told the audience at Friday’s round table how her mother’s guardians moved her from an assisted-care facility in the Twin Cities to her farm in rural Minnesota. The guardians hired unlicensed caregivers to care for the 82-year-old woman, who was suffering from dementia and diabetes. Over five years the guardians wrote checks to themselves or to “cash” on the woman’s account totaling more than $60,000. They restricted family visits — not even telling most family members of the woman’s death until after her body was cremated.

“We had a horrible experience,” said Van de North, who hailed Klobuchar’s legislation.

“It’s great she has brought the issue to the forefront,” she said. “There are crooks out there, and they are going to take advantage of people.”

Klobuchar’s bill, the Guardian Accountability and Senior Protection Act (S.F. 1744), would provide money to help state courts improve procedures dealing with adult guardianship and conservatorship. It also would authorize a pilot program for conducting background checks on people wanting to be appointed as guardians or conservators.

Only 13 states, including Minnesota, require such checks.

Finally, the bill would promote using technology to better monitor, report and audit conservatorships of protected people.

“We have all these amazing tools; let’s use them,” Klobuchar said.

During her opening statements, Klobuchar told about how, when she was the Hennepin County attorney, her office prosecuted Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Roland Amundson, who was convicted of stealing more than $400,000 from a trust account of a mentally disabled woman.

“It really hit home with me on how important it is to have good guardians and trustees,” Klobuchar said. “We have a duty to help people who need help.”

According to Klobuchar, more than 20,000 Minnesotans have court-appointed guardians or conservators managing their personal and financial affairs. That number will grow as baby boomers age.

Klobuchar also is motivated by the Government Accountability Office report “Cases of Financial Exploitation, Neglect and Abuse of Seniors.”

“GAO identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2010,” the report’s highlights section said. “In 20 selected closed cases, GAO found that guardians stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims, many of whom were seniors.”

Round-table participant Melanie Spencer, a guardian with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota-Duluth, said she supports Klobuchar’s legislation.

“It would be good if there was more consistency between states and counties,” she said, noting that only 13 states require guardians to be certified. Minnesota is not one of them.

Spencer said this area has a pretty good system for protecting seniors — with neighbors, friends, churches and businesses all looking out for them.

To illustrate, she told of one case where a woman’s boyfriend convinced her to go to court to gain power of attorney for her mother. The two then proceeded to empty the woman’s bank account and began the process of selling her house. The woman’s banker alerted St. Louis County to the unusual transactions. The county asked LSS to help. Together they recovered the woman’s money.

“These things are real; they happen,” Spencer said.