Michigan task force eyes bills to prevent guardianship abuse

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Attorney General Dana Nessel and a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced Michigan legislation Thursday that they hope will prevent elder abuse by bad actors appointed as guardians or conservators for the elderly.

The legislation comes after more than two years of research by a task force made up of more than 100 individuals and 55 organizations studying the issues contributing to elder abuse. Other recommendations are expected by the task force in the coming months. 

The effort has been overwhelmingly bipartisan, Nessel said at a Thursday press conference. 

"The one thing we all have in common standing up here is, the good lord willing, we’re all going be seniors one day, if we're not already, and we all want to be treated with respect and dignity," Nessel said. "That's what this is all about."

Attorney General Dana Nessel was joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Lansing to announce new legislation stemming from research by the Elder Abuse Task Force formed in 2019.

Rep. Graham Filler, a former assistant attorney general and chairman for the House Judiciary Committee, said cases that came to the attention of the task force "seemed to shock the conscience" and guide changes to the system. Hearings on the bills will begin this year.

"This is not fly-by-night legislation," said Filler, R-DeWitt. "These bills come from years of discussion and the task force's nonpartisan review.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Megan Cavanagh thanked those who came forward to relate their experiences with the guardianship system, noting they were heard "loud and clear."

"Probate judges will have additional tools in the law to make sure people with guardians have their rights protected," Cavanagh said of the legislation. 

Under the proposals, if a person is not a professional guardian or conservator, he or she would need to be certified, responsible for no more than two wards, related to the individual or licensed to take care of no more than three individuals.

If a court deviates from appointing someone close to the individual or family — which usually would be the priority choice — a judge must indicate on the record why that deviation was necessary. Those reasons could include the preference of the individual or the availability, relationship history, criminal history or work history of an individual. 

The bills also would expand and clarify the duties of a guardian ad litem to ensure the individual spends enough time meeting with the vulnerable adult and other parties before providing a report to the court. 

Other legislation would clarify and improve basic standards for medical reports and emergency petitions required in guardianship and conservatorship hearings, and set a clear income threshold that would trigger the involvement of a conservator. 

“That was a great first step, but there are so many dimensions to this problem,” said Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican who is a lead sponsor of the bill package in the Senate. “The system is ripe for abuse. People are losing 100% of their rights and there is not enough accountability or oversight."

The announcement Thursday morning was followed by a remote Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in Pontiac to take testimony on the introduced bills.

Committee members heard from Kerri Kasem, who was denied access to her father, legendary radio host Casey Kasem, until she won a protra legal battle to become his conservator shortly before his 2014 death. 

"In my case, it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to win visitation to my dad," she said. "Most people don’t have enough money to attain a lawyer let alone go through a whole trial fight.”

Kasem praised the bills introduced in the House and Senate, calling them the "most comprehensive" legislation she'd seen while advocating on the issue across the country. 

Nessel announced the Michigan Elder Abuse Task Force in March 2019 to address the legal, social and judicial shortfalls that have in some part allowed for the abuse of roughly 73,000 older adults in Michigan.

The task force included members of the state Supreme Court, the governor’s office, county prosecutors, state and federal lawmakers, advocacy groups and 13 people from the Attorney General's office.

Of the task force's initiatives, at least two have been accomplished — developing a standard vulnerable adult incident report form for police agencies and mandated reporting for banks and credit unions if there is a suspected case of exploitation. 

Nessel also announced the "Sentinel Project" in late April, which sends a team of agents to make unannounced visits to Michigan nursing homes to investigate possible instances of abuse and neglect.