LINCOLN — A group advocating for disabled Nebraskans plans to look into other “guardianship mills” following last week’s arrest of a Gering woman who had been named guardian for hundreds of people.
Judith Widener, 70, has been charged in Scotts Bluff County Court with stealing money from her wards.
Court records show that her company, Safe Haven Inc., had been assigned to act as the guardian for 688 people in more than 60 counties. The total includes inactive and closed cases, as well as ongoing ones.
Tim Shaw, CEO of Disability Rights Nebraska, said Widener’s firm is not the only organization that has sprung up recently to handle the affairs of elderly, blind and disabled people in Nebraska.
He said the firms need greater scrutiny, given the size and scope of problems uncovered with Safe Haven.
“I think there are questions to be asked about how these other guardianship mills are acting,” Shaw said. “Who’s watching them?”
Disability Rights, which provides legal representation and does other advocacy work, is pushing for Nebraska to create a public guardianship program that could end the reliance on private companies.
“Our current guardianship system needs reform,” Shaw said. “This case is yet another example of that need.”
The organization is also sending information about the Widener situation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Shaw said he is concerned that Widener created barriers that kept people from moving out of institutions into less restrictive living arrangements, in violation of their constitutional rights.
Most Nebraska guardians have the power to make decisions in all aspects of people’s lives, including health care, social and educational services, and place of residence.
Nebraska is the only state that depends entirely on volunteers to be guardians. Some people agree to be guardians for family members or friends, and some attorneys serve as guardians as a public service.
Courts typically appoint private individuals and companies, such as Widener’s, when relatives and friends cannot or will not be guardians.
The firms typically charge fees to their wards. With court approval, the firms can also get guardianship expenses paid out of their wards’ assets.
Shaw said public guardianship programs have oversight and safeguards built in to prevent the kind of financial abuse alleged in the Widener case.
State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln has said he is studying options, which could include having the courts, the Department of Health and Human Services or counties oversee public guardians.
State Auditor Mike Foley brought to light financial irregularities in the accounts that Widener managed for people across the state. The concerns were uncovered during an audit of the state’s program of Assistance to the Aged, Blind and Disabled and the associated State Disability Program.
A sampling of her accounts showed that at least $35,000 was missing, money that was allegedly used for her personal expenses, and that numerous false financial reports were filed with the courts.
Foley shared the findings with the Nebraska State Patrol and the Scotts Bluff county attorney, leading to Widener’s arrest on Nov. 22.
His audit, whose results were released Nov. 25, criticized HHS and the county courts for their lack of oversight of Widener’s cases.
The following day, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to do a systematic review of every guardianship assigned to Widener.
The courts were directed to look for improprieties, financial or otherwise, and to determine who requested that Widener be named as guardian.
Meanwhile, HHS has made arrangements to send future Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled payments directly to the facilities where Widener’s wards live, instead of to her accounts.
Kathie Osterman, an agency spokeswoman, said Widener is the guardian for 78 AABD clients. She said a small number of people receiving other HHS services also had Widener as their guardian.
Osterman said the appointment of new guardians will be handled by the courts.
Shaw said Disability Rights will help existing clients who had Widener as guardian with finding a new guardian or exploring other decision-making options. One possibility is having a guardian for limited types of decisions.
The organization also has put resources on its website to inform the public about guardianship issues. The resources include a form letter to use in requesting a temporary guardian.