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'This is civil death.' Advocates disappointed as guardianship bills now in limbo

Posted at 7:59 PM, Jun 20, 2024

LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — It was a disappointing day in Lansing for advocates of guardianship reform. A Senate committee did not vote on several bills that would change Michigan’s guardianship laws.

The 7 Investigators have been exposing serious problems in the current guardianship system since 2017.

These guardianship reform bills have been on the table in one form or another since 2021.

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On Thursday, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee ended her committee hearing without taking a vote on the proposed changes. With the Legislature about to take several weeks off for summer break, the fate of these bills is unclear.

The 7 Investigators have shown you for years how loopholes in Michigan’s guardianship laws have hurt local families.

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“This is not a system designed to help — this is prison,” Niki Disner said about her experience being under guardianship in Oakland County.

“Kept them hostage, took them from their families, locked them behind a 6-and-a-half-foot privacy fence and just drained their estate, researched how to sell off their property,” Gretchen Sommer said after a judge appointed a professional guardian for her aunt and uncle instead of a family member.

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force has worked for five years to create legislation to increase protections for vulnerable adults. If you’re declared legally incapacitated, you lose the right to make your own medical and financial decisions, and that’s not all.

“Where you live, who you visit, whether you live or die under a do-not-resuscitate order… every consequential decision that we make as adults is eliminated. This is civil death. You are completely robbed of your liberty,” said Michigan Elder Justice Initiative attorney Nicole Shannon.

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In front of the Michigan Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Thursday afternoon, elder law advocates and family members of people put under guardianship testified in support of the bills.

“The system is not working for the people at its center. I’m asking you to find the courage today, in this room, with this vote that has been missing for the last 30 years on guardianship reform and to pass House Bill 4909 and 4912 out of committee today. We cannot wait,” Shannon said.

“We want guardians who aren’t appointed 800 wards at a time… And we want guardians appointed only to the people who truly need them,” said Michelle Roberts, executive director of Disability Rights Michigan.

The bills would provide several protections including making sure probate judges put their reasons on the court record if they choose a professional guardian over a family member. They would also require more detailed reports from those assigned (Guardians ad Litem) to evaluate whether someone needs a guardian.

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Still opposing the bills: the Michigan Guardianship Association, or MGA, a nonprofit advocacy group for professional guardians.

“The vulnerable adults of Michigan need for you to understand how the unintended consequences of the legislation as written today combined with the continued lack of proper funding to serve indigent clients will negatively affect the quality of the services that they receive,” said Diana Matay from the MGA.

The MGA is the same group that was kicked off the Elder Abuse Task Force in 2023 after the 7 Investigators revealed their lobbyist was caught on tape mocking the AG’s efforts to add more oversight in the law by calling her task force a “task farce.”

“This is just one more example of how the system is failing,” said Chandra Drayton, whose mother Ernestine died while under the care of a professional guardian.

In a written statement, Committee Chair Senator Stephanie Chang said:

"I am supportive of the guardianship reform bill package and have been working closely for many months with the bill sponsor and several key stakeholders on the details of the bills. We have had robust committee hearings on the bills and plan to have more in order to hear from all parties and those wishing to speak. The stories from individuals impacted by the flaws in the guardianship system have compelled us to action and I am committed to seeing this bill package through to the finish line."

The 7 Investigators asked Chang if she will hold a vote before summer recess. This was the response received late Thursday:

“The bills are a top priority for me and committee members and we look forward to continuing in the committee process as soon as we can. The legislature is likely to be on summer recess after the budget process is complete, so we will see what we are able to do. Again, it's a priority and we are continuing to take in feedback from groups and hear from impacted families.”

VIDEO: Detroit man who is Deaf-Blind freed after spending more than 2 years under guardianship

Detroit man who is Deaf-Blind freed after spending more than 2 years under guardianship

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