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Blair at forefront of new guardian tracking system

Despite some complaints, a new Guardianship Tracking System by the Blair County courts is proving to be a valuable protection against exploitation of incapacitated, elderly and disabled adults.

Blair County President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle said in a interview that a recent criminal case in Blair County brought attention to how vulnerable those who are incapacitated can be.

A caretaker for a 75-year-old woman was sent to prison in August for physically and psychologically mistreating her elderly client.

The situation came to light when the family installed a nanny cam in their mother’s home and caught the abuse on camera.

Blair County First Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks said the laws against elder abuse need to be tougher as a deterrent to such mistreatment.

Strengthening the criminal laws is a task for the General Assembly, but Doyle wanted the public to know that Blair County is aware of elder abuse and for several years has been upgrading the county’s guardianship system.

This is a system in which the Court of Common Pleas, upon medical testimony that a person cannot continue to responsibly handle his or her own affairs — financially, medically or for other reasons — appoints a guardian.

According to a recently published Blair County Handbook for Guardians, the person, or in some cases an agency, “have a duty to protect the rights and property of the incapacitated person.”

Guardians have traditionally been required to file annual reports with the Blair County prothonotary and clerk of courts.

Several agencies provide the guardianship services, including Blair Senior Services, Distinctive Human Services with offices in Cambria County and Ursuline Support Services of Pittsburgh.

However, most guardians are family members or others close to the person who has been declared incapacitated.

In the past, the requirement for annual reports has sometimes been waived or a judge has told the guardians to send a letter reporting what is being done to protect the person.

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court convened an Elder Task Force to improve the way the courts address the challenges presented by the older population and incapacitated adults, such as those with mental disabilities or adults recuperating from serious accidents.

The task force concluded that guardianship case docket practices statewide “are inconsistent and in need of improvement.”

It noted clerk of courts offices often did not know when court-ordered guard­ian­ships were concluded by death or by discontinuance of the need for a guardian.

The task force concluded that the aging population can better and less expensively be maintained in the community but warned that elder abuse and exploitation will not be a short-term problem.

The report produced dozens of recommendations and resulted in the formation of an Advisory Council on Elder Justice in the Courts.

It also recommended the creation of a Pennsylvania Office of Elder Justice in the Courts.

Blair County at the forefront

As a protection against exploitation of incapacitated residents, Blair County this year implemented a new Guardianship Tracking System.

It requires an inventory of the incapacitated person’s assets and requires annual reports outlining how the person’s money has been spent.

It also requires a final report if a person has died or is no longer in need of a guardian.

Those reports are expected to be filed online, although the reports can still be filed on paper, but for an extra fee paid to cover the time it takes for a clerk to type the report into the computer system.

It also provides for a review of the reports and oversight of the guardianship program by two longtime Blair County attorneys who are experienced with elder care issues, James V.

McGough and Maryann Joyce Bistline.

McGough has practiced in Blair County for 42 years, while Bistline has been a member of the local bar for 32 years.

“We review the files, and if questions need raised, we refer them to the court,” Bistline said.

The online system is programmed to “red flag” possible problems in the reports.

McGough stated that inventories of the incapacitated person’s assets often raise red flags, and he noted that if the person receives Social Security benefits, the guardian is expected to attach a Social Security benefit report to the annual guardianship report.

Guardians have been having problems uploading the Social Security reports, and this will be addressed by the local and state officials, he said.

Many of the red flags noted through the state computer system are easily resolved.

One annual report for instance listed a payment for real estate taxes. That was flagged because the inventory of the person’s assets listed no property.

Bistline explained that issue was quickly resolved because the payment was $9.80.

It was determined this was a head tax reported on the wrong line.

McGough explained he and Bistline have been involved with improvements to the guardianship system during the past five or six years.

McGough said, “Blair County was one of the counties in the forefront of providing oversight of guardianships within the courts.”

The two attorneys have reviewed all of the reports filed this year by the guardians for 280 incapacitated individuals with active cases in Blair County.

“It’s a challenge. It requires a fair amount of time and commitment,”

McGough said.

He and Bistline split the reports, alternating months as to who reviews them, but sometimes they jointly review a report.

“We are doing this because we want to, because of the type of work involved. I find it fulfilling on a personal level, having dealt with elderly parents. I’m realistic about the responsibility and challenges,”

McGough said.

Bistline has a similar feeling about the challenging task of reviewing hundreds of reports. “I think it is a worthwhile project we have undertaken.”

She looks at the new requirements being placed on guardians “as a gentle reminder as to what their responsibilities are.”

The rules have changed

Doyle said the idea of the new system isn’t to burden people who, in many cases, have been caring for their disabled children or elderly parents for many years without having to file lengthy reports.

But it is important that the county knows who the guardians are and the status and details of their guardianships.

If reports aren’t being filed, she said, “We’ll see that.”

If the proper reports are not filed, a notice will be sent. If reports still are not filed, a hearing will be scheduled.

A guardian who refuses to file the reports could be replaced, the judge said.

Blair county has prepared a “Handbook for Guardians” that answers many questions that have arisen with the implementation of the new system.

It explains the inventory that must be itemized in an initial report by the guardian.

The inventory includes bank accounts, personal property, vehicles and money the incapacitated person expects to receive.

It explains the rights the incapacitated person retains, which include the ability to participate in decisions affecting the quality of one’s life and the right to take an active role in planning support services as well as the right to petition the court for review of the guardianship.

The reporting requirements are explained if there is a change in the incapacitated person’s status.

A copy of the questions that must be answered in the annual report are also included in the handbook.

While there is an emphasis on online reporting, Bistline is aware not all people have computers.

She suggested if that is the case, guardians can access the reporting system by going to one of Blair County’s eight libraries where computers are available.

In summing up what the new Guardianship Tracking System means, Bistline stated, “The rules have changed. People aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s just that the rules have changed.”

The person who must deal with the new rules on a day-to-day basis is Robin Patton, Blair County prothonotary and clerk of courts.

She and her office staff went through several days of training earlier this year, sponsored by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts.

Patton has assigned a member of her staff to handle all the records and filings involved with the new tracking system.

“They (state AOPC personnel) were here several days, training and answering questions,” Patton stated.

It has taken time getting used to the new system.

Patton said, “The guardians don’t like it,” pointing out many of the guardians have served in that capacity for years and are now required to file comprehensive reports.

She noted the staff member she has assigned to docket the reports and oversee the system within her office is “well-versed.”

“We are still learning about it and tweaking it (the tracking system),” she commented.

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