(WXYZ) — For years, the 7 Investigators have led the way in Michigan, exposing serious problems in the adult guardianship system.
Now, new legislation just introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives aims to strengthen the laws so families and vulnerable adults will have more protections in place.
When you’re declared mentally incapacitated and placed under guardianship, you can no longer make your own medical or legal decisions. And it’s shockingly easy to have someone declared "incapacitated."
“You lose everything. You have no right to vote, you have no right to medical care, you have no banking – everything is gone. That guardian basically steps in your shoes and becomes you,” said Gretchen Sommer.
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In late 2018, a Macomb County judge appointed a professional guardian to be in charge of Sommer’s aunt and uncle, Bob Mitchell and Barbara Delbridge.
Gretchen and her cousin Marcie Mitchell, Bob’s daughter, contacted the 7 Investigators after the guardian put up a six-foot tall privacy fence around Bob and Barb’s Utica home. The guardian said it was to keep Bob and Barb from wandering away, but family members said the guardian used the fence to keep them from visiting and checking on the elderly couple.
“I just want my parents back,” sobbed Mitchell at the time.
“They can’t get out, we can’t get in. They can’t take phone calls, because their landline’s been disconnected. Their cell phones have been taken, their cars were towed away. So they’re literally prisoners in their own home,” Sommer told the 7 Investigators in 2019.
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That guardian was Catherine Kirk’s Caring Hearts Michigan Inc., which later billed the Mitchell’s estate for more than $376,000 in fees. Caring Hearts eventually entered into a private settlement with the family and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel later ordered Caring Hearts and Kirk to stop working as a guardian.
“It totally devastated our family. It ripped us apart. We weren’t able to see Bob and Barb for many, many months,” said Sommer.
“How important is it to change the law,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“It’s so needed, this is running rampant. This is not only in Michigan, it’s nationwide,” said Sommer.
The Mitchell case and others exposed by the 7 Investigators caught the attention of the Michigan Supreme Court and the Attorney General who brought dozens of stakeholders together with an Elder Abuse Task Force.
“They brought in all kinds of stakeholders, the probate attorneys, judges, individuals who advocate for the elderly, guardians. They made some recommendations, and two years later we have those recommendations. It’s time to put them in front of the state and in front of the legislature,” said Rep. Graham Filler (R-Dewitt).
Representative Filler is the chair of Michigan’s House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Elder Abuse Task Force. He, along with Representatives Kyra Harris Bolden (D-Southfield) and Rodney Wakeman (R-Saginaw) have introduced four bills to address needed reforms in the guardianship system.
“So we have more protections for individuals who go into the guardianship system and also more accountability for those serving as guardians,” said Rep. Filler. “We want more transparency for every step of the judicial process. And what we’ve seen in the guardianship arena is sometimes there’s not that transparency.”
Here are some of the key issues the bills address:
- They would require judges to explain on the record why they’re appointing a professional guardian rather than a family member
- And the bills would mandate that professional guardians be certified
“There really is no training, educational or other type of requirement to be able to serve as a legal guardian,” said Nicole Shannon, the Systemic Advocacy Attorney for the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative.
She helped create the new legislation. Other proposed changes include requiring more information from doctors who evaluate whether someone is mentally incapacitated and making sure alternatives to the extreme step of guardianship are explored before a judge signs the order.
“If the courts had a little bit more leeway to encourage, investigate and implement some of those alternatives, it’s going to be a win for everybody,” said Shannon.
Shannon says change is needed because these cases can involve life or death decisions.
“It could potentially be your guardian deciding whether or not to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order because you no longer have that authority to make that decision for yourself. So these are very grave decisions that are sometimes made by strangers,” said Shannon.
One of the changes Gretchen Sommer is most excited about is the idea that judges will have to follow new rules to make sure family members take priority under the law to be the guardians of their relatives. The judge refused to appoint her cousin Marcie, instead putting Caring Hearts Michigan Inc. in place, even though Marcie had priority under the law.
“That needs to be changed 100%. If families are willing and have the means to care for their parents, or their elderly family members, they need to be the ones to do it. They’re their best interests, they’re not getting paid to do it. They’re not charging astronomical fees to do this service that they would do for free,” said Sommer.
Here are the new bills:
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