By Joanna Anderson, CQ Staff

The Senate Judiciary Committee backed a measure Thursday designed to help state courts improve their handling of adult guardianship cases in an effort to prevent exploitation of seniors and the disabled.

The amended bill (S 1744) would authorize grants for the courts to update their practices on guardians overseeing adults who are unable to manage property and accounts, as well as conservators tasked with managing adults’ estates.

The Judiciary panel approved the measure in a 15-3 vote, with Republicans Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah opposing it.

“I know every state has incidences of people getting ripped off millions of dollars when their loved one is supposed to be under the care of a guardian,” said Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar , the bill’s sponsor. “Most guardians do amazing work, good work, but . . .  [some] are causing a lot of harm.”

Klobuchar is the chairwoman of the Judiciary panel’s Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, which held a hearing last year to examine court-appointed guardians for seniors and the disabled.

“It is a moral imperative that we take action,” Klobuchar said at the Sept. 22 hearing, citing a Government Accountability Office report on wrongdoing by guardians.

The 2010 report identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians. In 20 selected cases, the GAO found “guardians stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims, many of whom were seniors” and in some instances “also physically neglected and abused their victims.”

The report also revealed instances in which courts failed to adequately screen potential guardians or oversee guardians once they were appointed.

Under Klobuchar’s bill, the Health and Human Services Department could award grants to state courts to be used for assessing how they appoint and monitor guardians and conservators, as well as for making any needed changes to their practices. Recipient courts would be directed to work with their state’s aging and adult protective service agencies.

The bill also would require HHS to give the State Justice Institute (SJI) an opportunity to weigh in on how the grants are awarded, and HHS may also consult with the Justice Department.

Established in 1984, the SJI is a nonprofit corporation governed by an 11-member board composed of state court judges, members of the public and a state court administrator. It is tasked with promoting greater coordination between state and federal courts.

The bill would include no new funding. Rather it would tap into existing grant funds. It has the backing of groups such as the AARP, the American Bar Association, The National Center for State Courts and The National Guardianship Association, Klobuchar said Thursday.

Background Checks, E-Filing Provisions

The bill would require that 25 percent of the grant funds go toward helping states to either create, or improve existing, background check processes on prospective guardians and conservators.

“Many states don’t even have criminal background checks,” Klobuchar noted Thursday.

At a minimum, the checks must include national and state criminal background checks, a review of child abuse and adult abuse registries and a search to determine whether the individual has been suspended or disbarred from law, accounting or other professional licensing for misconduct.

The panel agreed Thursday to a Klobuchar substitute amendment that struck the underlying bill’s language that would create a pilot program for the Justice Department to work with the state courts in setting up guidelines for background checks.

Under the amended bill, grant funds could also be used to increase the use of electronic filing for guardianship and conservatorship filings, with the goal of helping the courts more easily detect discrepancies, fraud and exploitation of protected adults.

Klobuchar’s amendment also added a requirement that HHS, working with Justice and SJI, report to Congress on changes made by state courts that receive the grants.