Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune Updated: September 22, 2011 - 9:01 PM

Citing widespread mistreatment and theft, experts told a Senate subcommittee that tighter oversight is needed.

Growing numbers of seniors and vulnerable adults are abused by guardians and conservators across the country, and states and local court systems need to do more to stem the problem, according to testimony at a hearing in Washington chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Thursday.

In Minnesota, more than 22,000 adults rely on these court-appointed caretakers to make decisions about health care, housing and finances that they can no longer handle on their own because of dementia or other problems. Lax oversight and monitoring have allowed some caretakers to mistreat or steal from wards entrusted to them.

Hundreds of allegations of maltreatment by guardians across the country were documented in a federal report released last year. In 20 cases examined closely by the Government Accountability Office, guardians stole $5.4 million from 158 victims.

"When a guardian is abusive, he or she is cloaked in the court's authority and can be a wolf in Little Red Riding Hood's cape -- often with no one protecting grandmother," according to Naomi Karp, an AARP policy adviser who testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts.

Criminal background checks are required in only 13 states before someone is appointed. The GAO study found problems with criminals or people with financial problems slipping through the cracks.

Klobuchar plans to introduce legislation next month to encourage criminal background checks for guardians and conservators and promote better oversight and electronic reporting systems. It will also outline a process to create model guidelines for state courts to improve programs in all 50 states.

"It's not going to change things overnight," Klobuchar said. "This has been a creeping problem, where no one has responded to it. We're starting to see more and more seniors and less resources."

Minnesota's long-term care ombudsman, Deb Holtz, testified Thursday that changes to Minnesota law in 2009 improved aspects of the system, but she said a national registry or database is needed.

"We're seeing too many of these things occurring where people move around from state to state," Holtz said. "They prey on the victims."