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Guardians program fulfills need

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When a hospital in northwest Indiana approached the Lake County courts seven years ago regarding an increasing number of adult patients without guardians – someone to speak on behalf of the patient if his or her family members are no longer around or unable to make decisions – the judges listened.

To help address the need for guardians for patients of Saint Margaret Mercy Hospital, Judge Diane Kavadias-Schneider – with others in the court and with permission from Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard – worked on a guardianship program that involved temporary volunteer guardians.

Like court appointed special advocates for children, they would go through a training program and participate in a swearing-in ceremony.

The temporary guardians would help patients who had an immediate need to transition to a nursing home or similar care, Judge Kavadias-Schneider said.

To address the long-term issues of all incapacitated people over 18 in Lake County and ultimately other counties in northwest Indiana, stakeholders in the community started meeting and formed Northwest Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Inc. a few years ago.

In 2008, the Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Project was formed with the idea that Northwest Indiana Adult Guardianship Services would serve as a model for stakeholders and pilot sites in Allen, Elkhart, Lawrence, St. Joseph, and Vanderburgh counties. Tippecanoe County also had a pilot site, which closed in June because of a lack of funding. Becky Pryor, project coordinator for the Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Program, has also been in touch with interested parties in Montgomery and Wayne counties, and a similar program is in the works at Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis.

Judge Kavadias-Schneider and others credit Pryor for helping get the stakeholders in northwestern Indiana and the rest of the state together and for helping secure state funding.

Teddy Flores, the executive director of Northwest Indiana Adult Guardianship Services, said when he learned funding was going to be available, the priority was to create courses and materials for training programs that could be used by other counties. By doing so, the program would receive the state funding to start its own volunteer program for long-term guardians.

There have been three training sessions since spring 2009, and a total of 35 volunteers who have completed the training sessions. The first training in Porter County took place earlier this summer, he said. The organization plans to eventually offer trainings in five other counties in northwest Indiana.

Currently, he said, 15 people are matched with volunteers or are in the process of being matched; there’s a waiting list of about 10 people.

The organization screens all calls, he said, and will refer people to other resources in the area as appropriate. He said the number of calls they’ve received who weren’t eligible for guardianships but still received referrals for other services was somewhere between 75 and 100.

While the program would like to help more people, funding remains an issue. State funding was not renewed in the most recent budget cycle for the Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Project, so there has been a need to find other grants and fundraising opportunities. He said they are waiting to hear about a number of grants, but one grant they’ve received will help with a training session.

They’ve also been conducting fundraising projects, including a dinner that featured international cuisine made by local chefs, a silent and live action, and a jazz trio. Most of the services were donated, Flores said, and the event netted just more than $15,000.

A similar event is in the works for January 2011, he added.

The organization is also working on whether there is a possibility to charge a fee to organizations that could afford to pay for the services of a volunteer guardian. For instance, he said, hospitals and health-care providers would be able to save on the cost of extra days of care for a patient, in some cases up to a month or longer, if the patient has a guardian who can determine that the patient can be released sooner than without a guardian.

Each county also has its own rules regarding how guardianships are handled, he added, which is why the program has only begun in two counties in the northwest so far. Had the funding from the state continued, he said, they would be in more counties by now.

As for how guardianships have helped in the court, Judge Kavadias-Schneider and Probate Commissioner Donald Stepanovich both said the guardians have been helpful so far, but they expect there will only be a greater need for volunteer guardianship programs like the one in Lake County and others around the state.

Stepanovich pointed to changes in the structure of families over the years.

“It used to be that the mom stayed home with the kids, the dad worked, and most people stayed in same neighborhood their whole lives,” he said. “The nucleus of the family has changed. You have more situations where grandma doesn’t have anyone by her side now.”

He said families are also smaller, so instead of three or four kids to take care of their parents, there’s maybe one or two.

He added guardianship laws also need to be updated.

“The guardianship code was written to protect an incapacitated person mostly from financial abuse. … It was not written so that someday a stranger who’s a volunteer backed by an organization could come forward and represent a penniless incapacitated person. Reading the code as a volunteer, you’ll just want to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ … Our law is not yet equipped to deal with what we need to put in place now,” he said.

He and Judge Kavadias-Schneider did praise the statute that was passed in 2004 with Pryor’s help and support from Chief Justice Shepard so that all courts in the state could have these volunteer programs.

But, Stepanovich added, “We’re going to need to do more of that to make a space and initiative for these agencies.”

That includes providing state funding before it becomes more of a problem not only for the courts, but for people who need help, he said.

Judge Kavadias-Schneider said she’s proud of what the program has accomplished so far.

“It’s a tough economic time and government can’t solve all of our problems, but this partnership between not-for-profits and hospitals and the courts is a good way to solve the problems of society. Lake County gets a lot of bad press, but we do a lot of good things up here,” she said.

While funding remains an issue, one thing lawyers can do to help is take on the legal work pro bono. All but one of the cases, Flores said, has been handled with help from attorneys who volunteer through District 1. He said plan administrator Judy Stanton has been helpful in setting up attorneys with the program.

The organization is also hosting a statewide symposium Oct. 29 at Ivy Tech in Valparaiso. Attorneys will be eligible to receive about six hours of CLE credit while learning about guardianship and having a chance to network with others in social services looking for legal help and advice.

More information can be found at www.niags.org or by e-mailing Flores at niags_teddy@yahoo.com.•

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