Courts around Indiana have started their own guardianship programs based on the Lake County model program in Allen, Elkhart,
Lawrence, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe, and Vanderburgh counties.
And while state funding has since dried up for the Indiana Adult Guardianship Services Project that started in 2008, the only program that has been put on hold is the one in Tippecanoe County, which ended in June because of lack of funds.
However that program, said Becky Pryor, project coordinator of the statewide program, could resume if there was funding again.
While some counties already have existing guardianship programs for adults, the main differences between the existing programs
and the new programs are there would be volunteers acting as guardians – some of the existing programs had staff members
acting as guardians; stakeholders would work together instead of only focusing on age or particular disabilities; and most
communities have been able to raise funds for their programs in addition to initial state funding.
For instance, Elkhart County’s program is a consortium of existing providers who are recruiting their first volunteer class.
Cary Kelsey, assistant to the president of ADEC Inc. of Elkhart County, an organization to assist people with developmental disabilities, said she could see the benefit to adding trained volunteer guardians to expand what her organization has been doing for many years with paid staff.
Kelsey has been working with, among others, Pam Huffer, director of advocacy for REAL Services based in South Bend. Huffer said her organization had been using volunteers in other counties, but she looked forward to expanding the organization’s outreach with volunteer guardians in Elkhart County.
In Vanderburgh County, a new non-profit organization was created from stakeholder meetings in that community. Guardianship Services of Southwestern Indiana Inc. was incorporated in 2009 and received 501c3 status in June.
Arin Norris, executive director, said the first training was completed in July using the model from another pilot program, Lawrence County Adult Guardianship Services.
Like many of the other trainings, local professionals presented various subjects to the volunteers.
“Topics included mental health issues, dealing with difficult people, an Alzheimer’s role playing activity, a panel of hospice nurses, an introduction to Bridges Out of Poverty, and communication training,” Norris said via e-mail.
That organization has also received support from Vanderburgh Superior Judge Brett J. Niemeier, who, Norris said, has offered the support of his court, including “in-kind donations, such as office space, use of a computer and a telephone line. Judge Niemeier wants to ensure that all incapacitated adults in Vanderburgh County have a willing and suitable guardian.”
Allen Superior Judge David Avery has also been supportive of the project in his respective county.
That county’s program is run by the Volunteer Lawyers Program of Northeast Indiana Inc., the District 3 pro bono organization. While it is unclear how Indiana on Lawyer Trust Accounts funding will affect pro bono districts around the state for 2011, including this program, and even though there is no guarantee of state funding like there was in the beginning, Judge Avery is optimistic that it will continue in some fashion thanks to the partnerships that have formed.
In Allen County, he said, the council includes the adult protective services division of the prosecutor’s office, nursing home representatives, hospital representatives, and others who could help address what the local needs are and the most effective way to address them. This is typical of the other counties.
Michele M. Wagner, director of Guardianship Services at the Volunteer Lawyer Program, said she was unaware of the need until the program started accepting referrals in 2008.
“The waiting list was astronomical,” she said. “We stopped counting after we reached around the 80s.”
She said VLP has helped with a total of 51 guardianships. She added 21 cases still have representation, but without funding they can’t take any more at this time.
“The need is just overwhelming,” she said. “About 80 percent is from the developmentally disabled population, and a lot of those cases have dual diagnoses that include mental illness. The majority used to be in state centers for people with developmental disabilities who are now living in the community. … It’s often hard to find the best situations for them. We tried a little bit of everything with the 51 cases we had.”
The pilot program in St. Joseph County, said Dan Harshman, co-executive director of the Guardianship Consortium of St. Joseph County, has “identified two major areas of need – people being discharged from local hospitals and people with mental illness. Our first effort will be to assist the hospitals with the need they have when people don’t have families to help determine if they should have a procedure or if they should leave the hospital.”
He added the organization is also working to create educational materials for anyone who is willing to be a guardian. Other counties are also working on educational material for the community, including guardians who are family members.
Harshman also noted that his county’s program has been working with the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, including the other co-executive director of the St. Joseph County program, Michael Jenuwine, a lawyer and a clinical psychologist, who has been a key player in the county’s project.
Jenuwine started a study about adult guardianships after Pryor had asked him. He said all guardianships receive the same code from the courts, so part of his work was to look over 1,000 cases from 15 different counties that were filed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2008.
Of the cases he looked at, he said the youngest person was 17, the oldest was 102. Most of the cases involved people older than 65, with dementia being the most common issue. He added that most of the people in the cases were either at the younger end, between 18 to 20 years old, or around the mid-60s.
While looking at the cases, he also found the ward was often not present in court, and there was often no diagnosis from a physician. Typically a family member would describe the ward’s issues or there would be a physician’s note that the person needed a guardian but no further explanation.
Overall, he said, “A whole lot of things could be better.”
His students have also called clerks offices in every court around the state that would possibly handle guardianships for adults to survey them about their observations.
“My hope is this leads to some reform to tighten the laws we have, get resources to the courts to make sure they can have better accounting systems for adult guardianships,” he said.
Pryor added that many hope Jenuwine’s research, as well as input from stakeholders around the state who continue to meet, will influence the state regarding future funding for these kinds of programs.
In addition to the pilot programs, Wayne and Montgomery counties have expressed an interest in creating a local program to Pryor. In Marion County, a pilot program is in the works for Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis.
She and others said lawyers could give pro bono hours or financial support if they want to help. She suggested they contact their local organizations or her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.•