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Bill to Protect Seniors Gains

The California Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would overhaul the state's troubled conservatorship system by licensing professional conservators and mandating tougher court oversight to protect the rights of incapacitated adults.

In a 55-10 vote, the Assembly heeded calls for reform by elder rights groups and split largely along party lines as Democratic legislators joined ranks and passed the bill three weeks after its introduction. It now goes to the Senate, where greater scrutiny and more deliberate consideration is expected.

Most Republicans either abstained or opposed the measure, saying that they favored greater oversight of professional conservators but felt the Democrats were moving too fast in adopting what would be the most far-reaching reform of the conservatorship system in at least 20 years.

Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged swift passage, saying the abuse of incapacitated adults by professional conservators entrusted with their care cries out for reform.

Jones drafted the legislation in response to a four-part series published by The Times in November that described abuse and neglect of senior citizens by conservators and lax oversight by state probate courts.

Jones cited two cases highlighted by The Times in which professional conservators appointed by the courts failed to "conserve" the savings of their elderly clients.

In one case, 93-year-old widow Emmeline Frey lost more than $100,000 after a San Diego conservator used her son, a former car salesman turned financial advisor, to invest clients' money in risky stock funds just as the market nose-dived.

In the other, Helen Jones, 87, complained that after saving obsessively over a lifetime, she watched helplessly as a San Bernardino conservator squandered her money on fees, household appliances and other services she never asked for.

"These examples of abuse and many others show a system that is failing the very people it was supposed to protect," Jones told Assembly members. "I don't think we can move fast enough to remedy the abuses in this system."

Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) asked his party members to either oppose or abstain on the issue. He noted that the state's chief justice had only two weeks ago created a task force of judicial officers that will examine how to hold conservators accountable.

"This is a major, major, significant reform," Harman said. "It's a step in the right direction. But it is being pushed through the system very, very rapidly."

But other legislators from both parties said the issue is resonating strongly among constituents and deserved a fast response from Sacramento.

"People care about this issue," said Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach). "The way to get things done is to act like it's really important, which our constituents expect us to do."

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) cited his own elderly relatives as he voiced support for the bill. His late uncle, he said, was persuaded while in his 80s to obtain a reverse mortgage on his home in the Berkeley Hills — a poor financial move that left his heirs unable to inherit the home.

"Every single day in California … the elderly are victimized because they're helpless to help themselves in many instances," Spitzer said.

The conservatorship system began as a way for families to help frail, failing relatives but has become a growing business in California as the population has aged and families dispersed. Today, about 500 professional conservators operate in the state, caring for at least 4,600 people and managing $1.5 billion in assets.

The Times' investigation found that professionals often gain legal authority over elderly men and women without their consent, swiftly taking control of their lives and finances. Some conservators neglected or isolated their wards and ran up excessive fees. Probate courts, meanwhile, overlooked incompetence, neglect and outright theft.

Jones said his bill attempts to redress many of these problems.

In addition to licensing professionals, his proposal would require courts to audit the financial reports of conservators. It would also require court-employed investigators to increase the frequency of their visits to senior citizens under conservatorship. Currently, investigators must visit incapacitated adults a year after a conservator has been appointed and then every two years to check their status and determine whether they still need the guardians' services — a deadline that some understaffed courts fail to meet. If the bill becomes law, investigators would have to visit six months after a conservator was appointed and every year thereafter.

The bill also would make it harder for conservators to gain control of the lives and finances of the elderly on an emergency basis — often without their knowledge — by claiming that they are in imminent danger, either because they cannot care for themselves, or are being preyed upon by an outsider.

Under the bill, court investigators would have to visit adults before — or within 48 hours of — an emergency appointment, when conservators are granted temporary powers in advance of a later hearing by a probate judge.

Currently, investigators must visit adults subject to conservatorship only before a permanent conservator is appointed.

State court officials, who support licensing and increased court scrutiny of conservators, have nevertheless expressed concern about the costs associated with the proposed requirements, which they estimate at more than $10 million a year. As yet, the bill does not address where the money would come from.

Daniel Pone, an attorney who handles legislative issues for the state's Administrative Office of the Courts, said the state's courts would probably seek amendments to the bill in the next few months when it is considered in the Senate. Extra costs, he said, would have to be borne by either taxpayers or senior citizens under conservatorship.

"Most people believe that abuses are not occurring in the overwhelming majority of the cases," Pone said. "So the trick is to come up with solutions that really target the abuse cases and don't unnecessarily create expenses for the [senior citizens] and the courts."

Jones' measure also requires public guardian offices, the county agencies that operate as conservators of last resort, to take on all cases in which there is no one else willing or capable of acting as conservator. Los Angeles County officials estimate that requirement would cost their agency an extra $1.8 million a year. Public guardians would also have to visit clients within 48 hours of a referral.

Jones' bill would require that fees paid by conservators cover the costs of setting up a licensing division, which would have the authority to investigate complaints and decertify abusive professionals. Those fees are estimated at $750 a year — far higher than the $385 every three years that professionals now pay to register with the state.

Richard Lambie, a former president of the industry trade group that represents professional conservators, said he supports much of the bill but worries that such stiff fees might deter prospective conservators from joining the profession.

"For somebody who is starting out in the business, that's a pretty hefty commitment," he said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would not comment on pending legislation but that the issue of conservatorship abuses was a concern.

"It is a priority for the governor to ensure that there are ample protections for California senior citizens," Julie Soderlund said. "The issue of conservatorship is an important one that we are currently looking into."

Supporters said the bill's speedy passage through the Assembly left them hopeful that most of its provisions would make it into law.

"We are thrilled," said Michelle Williams Court, director of litigation at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which sponsored the legislation.

"This is a very important step in reforming the system to protect frail Californians from abuse."

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Times staff writer Evelyn Larrubia contributed to this report.

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