Indiana soon could break new ground with the introduction of one of the nation’s first databases of guardians and their wards. The development is raising hopes for improved oversight of vulnerable populations along with concerns about their privacy.
“I would really be surprised if we’re not moving forward with pilot counties by January at least and seeing how that moves through the calendar year of 2014,” Fountain Circuit Judge Susan Orr Henderson said of the registry being developed by the Indiana Adult Guardianship State Task Force. Henderson chairs the group’s guardian registry project.
That task force’s scores of stakeholder members has scheduled a retreat Oct. 24-25 at Notre Dame Law School to be updated on progress concerning the registry and other initiatives including creation of an Office of Adult Guardianship within the Indiana Supreme Court.
Task force volunteer coordinator Rebecca Pryor said the guardian registry will put Indiana in the forefront of states in managing guardianship cases. “As far as we’ve been able to tell, this will be the first registry of its kind in the country,” she said.
Pryor said the task force has moved the registry project ahead despite off-and-on funding. Henderson said the Supreme Court Judicial Technology and Automation Committee has been developing the registry for about 18 months with input from members of the Indiana State Bar Association’s probate section and task force members.
“There is a level of confidentiality. I understand that,” Pryor said. “What we’re looking at is balancing that need to know and then putting out that public information the public should be able to access.” The task force is hoping to identify six to eight counties that will soon test the guardian registry.
“We want to get it out to judges for them to take a look at … and get it to court clerks,” Pryor said. “It really will be their commitment to this that will make this work.”
Henderson said the registry will compile as public information names of wards of guardians, names and contact information for guardians, and whether guardianship letters are current. Separately, confidential information available to court officers would include required filings such as accountings and inventories, she said.
Information will be available through the Indiana Court Information Technology Extranet, or INcite, Henderson said. The goal is to include information about all guardianships in the state.
“If you are an attorney practicing in the probate area and you are the attorney for that guardian, you’re going to get reminders – chronological case summary reminders saying, ‘this is a gentle reminder you haven’t filed an inventory,’” Henderson gave as an example. “Events are going to trigger automatic chronological case summary notices.”
But the proposed advance doesn’t come without concerns about how much information will be available, to whom and for what purpose. “It’s still undecided who will have access to this,” said Carmel elder law attorney and task force member George Slater II.
Slater shared some concerns regarding the registry at a recent elder law panel discussion at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. Slater noted that Notre Dame law professor Michael Jenuwine prepared a report for the task force that found guardianship practices vary widely from county to county.
That study found oversight of cases and enforcement of filing deadlines, for instance, may be proactive in some jurisdictions and an afterthought elsewhere, Slater said. “There’s many, many guardianship requirements in this state that are not being followed.”
While he said a registry could improve the handling of guardianship cases and bring more uniformity in courts around the state, he’s concerned that the registry has evolved from early concepts of a list to become something more resembling a case management system that many judges and court clerks may not be prepared for.
“It’s hard for me to think that all the judges in this state know what’s coming,” Slater said. “It’s kind of like a big train coming down the tracks, and I’m not sure everybody’s heard the whistle yet.”
Dennis Frick, head of the senior law project at Indiana Legal Services and a member of the task force, said compliance with the requirements of guardianships varies from court to court. “It seems like some counties do a pretty good job of keeping tabs and other counties don’t,” he said.
Marion County, for instance, has a larger probate court staff that allows for proper oversight and monitoring of accountings that must be completed every two years. He said the court proactively notifies attorneys of those deadlines.
“In some counties the guardianship is in place for years with no financial accounting,” Frick said. “They’re just relying on the guardian to do what he’s going to do.
“One of the things the registry would do is allow the courts to manage their own caseloads,” he said.
Pryor said the registry will provide not just courts but other users vital information and ultimately will allow information sharing across county lines. “For the courts, for attorneys, hospitals, law enforcement, it will make their lives so much easier if we have a registry.”
Henderson said input from those who’ve worked on developing the registry has addressed numerous scenarios that included questions of how much information to make available to the public.
“We’re on our way and we wanted to make sure the project was ready to be rolled out and offer an opportunity to provide some feedback on it,” Henderson said. “Hopefully, the end product is going to satisfy the skeptics who are fearful of overexposure” of confidential information.•