U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, today released a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found a need for stronger screening and oversight of guardians appointed to make financial decisions for incapacitated adults.
In its report, GAO found that only 13 states require criminal background checks on all potential court-appointed guardians, and that there are gaps in information sharing that can adversely affect incapacitated adults. GAO recommends that the Social Security Administration (SSA) find ways to share information with state courts dealing with the appointment of guardians for SSA beneficiaries. GAO also recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services consider supporting promising court pilot programs that monitor guardians.
"The bottom line is that we need to ensure that the people being put in charge of someone else's Social Security checks are using the money appropriately," said Kohl. "While I acknowledge that the Social Security Administration faces limitations, we must do more to combat abuses in the system."
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) joined Kohl in reacting to the report's findings.
"As a former prosecutor, I believe we need tougher oversight to protect seniors from bad actors and ensure their financial security," said Klobuchar. "Our seniors deserve this common-sense accountability in our Social Security system."
There are over 765,000 Social Security beneficiaries with a fiduciary or guardian. A 2010 GAO report identified hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2010. In reviewing 20 of those cases, GAO found that guardians, who sometimes represent multiple wards, stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims, many of whom were seniors.
Part of the problem, according to national advocates for elder rights, is that courts often have difficulty obtaining information that could enhance the ability to protect the interests of beneficiaries, particularly from the SSA. SSA asserts that the Privacy Act and other considerations prevent the agency from sharing fiduciary information with state courts.
Earlier this year, Kohl introduced legislation to prevent elder abuse, including abuse perpetrated by fiduciaries and guardians. The Elder Abuse Victims Act (S. 462) would establish an Office of Elder Justice within the Justice Department that would protect seniors by strengthening law enforcement's response to elder abuse. Additionally, the End Abuse in Later Life Act (S. 464) would enhance direct services to older victims of abuse, including financial exploitation.