In 2010, a World-Herald investigation found that more than 12,400 incapacitated Nebraskans rely on a guardian to oversee their health, a conservator to handle their financial matters or a guardian-conservator to handle both.
In some instances, The World-Herald reporting uncovered troubling abuses. Especially outrageous was the case of Dinah Turrentine-Sims, a court-appointed guardian-conservator who stole more than $400,000 from eight of her wards in Douglas County.
In response, a state task force proposed sensible changes. Key tools included requiring background checks, bond insurance for estates over $10,000 and quicker cataloging of assets. In 2011 the Legislature included those as part of a practical reform package, and the Nebraska judges and court personnel have worked hard to implement the needed safeguards.
In his annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature last week, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican said the increased monitoring under the reforms “has uncovered further instances of theft and misuse of funds by guardians and conservators.”
In addition, he said, the Supreme Court is creating a permanent Commission on Guardianships and Conservatorships to provide an ongoing vehicle for maintaining the focus on this important issue.
A cautionary note is needed on one of the chief justice’s points, however. He said the new requirements involving guardianship forms and procedures have increased the workload of court staffers, and the Supreme Court is working with the Nebraska State Bar Association to see how the process can be simplified.
No one doubts the hard work by Nebraska’s courts, and if practical ways can be found to help court staff without lessening the safeguards to protect incapacitated Nebraskans, fine. But there needs to be no doubt on what the priority should be: maintaining the full strength of the protections for these vulnerable citizens, as set forth in the 2011 reform legislation.
In his address, Chief Justice Heavican also pointed to notable progress Nebraska is making in other areas, thanks to impressive cooperation between the court system and Nebraska lawmakers.
>> Juvenile offenders. The state is seeing early success in a juvenile probation program that aims to keep young offenders in their homes rather than becoming wards of the state. Since July 1, he said, the probation program has enabled 80 percent of those offenders to remain at home and the same percentage of offenders has completed their probation, a higher rate than the statewide average.
The program, already proving beneficial in Omaha in recent years, was expanded by lawmakers last year to pilot projects in North Platte and Scottsbluff. Since July, it has involved around 600 youths.
>> Drug offenders. To lessen the number of nonviolent drug offenders entering the state’s overcrowded prison system, Nebraska is utilizing specialized drug courts that are now used in all 12 of Nebraska’s judicial districts. A recent analysis by the University of Nebraska found that Nebraska’s approach compares well nationally in regard to graduation rates, recidivism and cost efficiency.
Along the same line, the state’s specialized probation program to provide intensive treatment for offenders with chronic drug problems now includes about 17,000 adults and children under the supervision of probation officers. That program currently is at capacity, Heavican said.
There’s no magic solution to the drug problem and the crime associated with it, but Nebraska is making progress, using sensible alternatives rather than automatically just tossing people into prison and escalating the already-hefty prison costs.
And on the guardianship issue, the state needs to remain firm in doing everything it can to prevent the bilking of Nebraskans by criminals abusing the guardianship/conservatorship process.