Virginia’s private guardianship program fails to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents
A new report found guardians face little oversight while wielding broad power over incapacitated adults
Some of Virginia’s most at-risk adults aren’t sufficiently protected by the state’s private guardianship system, according to a new report from a legislative watchdog agency.
The findings, detailed in a Monday hearing by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, largely affirm years of concerns from many advocates and family members. A 2019 investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch also detailed numerous faults within the system, which is subject to little oversight but has broad discretion to remove the decision-making rights of adults in its care.
“The state’s role is woefully inadequate, given that these guardians are responsible for some of the most vulnerable Virginians,” JLARC Director Hal Greer told legislators at the meeting. “The private system lacks meaningful standards, requirements or accountability to help ensure that thousands of adults are being adequately served.”
Like other states, Virginia developed its guardianship process to help so-called “incapacitated adults” — those 18 years or older who are found to be incapable of meeting their own essential needs. The process begins with a circuit court petition — which can be filed by an individual or an “entity” — according to the JLARC report, and judges ultimately decide whether a guardian will be appointed.
Of the roughly 12,000 adults under guardianship care, 1,000 are served by the state’s publicly funded system, which has been described as a national model. But Kathy Hayfield, commissioner for the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, said the $4.5 million program is already considered underfunded for the adults it serves.
According to JLARC, nearly 700 people are currently on the waitlist. Eligibility is limited to adults who are deemed incapacitated, low-income and who don’t have another individual willing to serve as their guardian.
“The older term for that was ‘indigent and friendless,’” said Joe McMahon, JLARC’s project leader for the report. Those strict admission criteria leave roughly 11,000 Virginians, half between the ages of 18 and 44, to be served by the private guardianship system.
Unlike the publicly funded program, though, private guardians receive little oversight and aren’t subject to either independent monitoring or training and caseload requirements. Family members and friends can serve as guardians, but so can attorneys or “organizations,” McMahon said.
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