LINCOLN — State lawmakers advanced a bill Friday in response to a case in which an appointed guardian is accused of embezzling $600,000 from disabled and infirm clients across the state.
Under the bill, the state would set up a state Office of Public Guardian, which would provide state-paid guardians to disabled, elderly and infirm people who have no relatives to take care of their affairs.
All 49 other states provide such public guardians, according to State Sen. Colby Coach of Lincoln, the sponsor of Legislative Bill 920.
“Some will say this was overdue, but I think we did this at the right time,” Coash said.
Volunteers, the senator said, have done a great job in the past in stepping in as guardians. But Coash said the case of Judith Widener, who had been assigned as guardian for 688 cases in 60 Nebraska counties, illustrated that the system needs the additional capacity provided by public guardians.
She was appointed, Coash said, because judges had no other options.
Widener was charged with embezzling from those clients after irregularities were discovered in a report from State Auditor Mike Foley last fall.
Under LB 920, the state would appoint a public guardian as a last resort if a relative or other volunteer could not be found. Such guardians make decisions on matters like health care and living arrangements when a court determines that a person is no longer able to make those decisions on their own.
If a person had the financial means to hire a guardian, they would be required to contribute to the cost of a public guardian. The state would pay for the service if a person had no money or assets.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson, who has served as an appointed guardian in the past, expressed concern that a public guardianship system could “mushroom” in size, if the state picked up the tab for cases in which children or relatives didn't want to perform the duty.
But Coash and other supporters said the bill was crafted to seek out family members first and utilize a public guardian as “a last resort.”
The Office of Public Guardian would be administered through the state court system and is projected to cost $880,000 in the first year and employ nine people. It is projected to double in size during the second year, but senators said that potential expansion would be reviewed to make sure it was justified.