The 10 Best Observer Stories of 2016: ‘Who Guards the Guardians?’
Texas counties have stripped thousands of elderly
and disabled citizens of their rights — and
then forgotten about them.
Editor’s Note: This is a Texas Observer classic — a deep investigation into adult guardianships, a dark and little-known corner of government. Patrick Michels shows in vivid detail how some county judges have stripped senior citizens and disabled folks of their rights and then left them to fend for themselves. Patrick’s article had an impact. The woman he profiles was invited to testify at a Texas Senate hearing and two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, have vowed to fix problems with adult guardianship in the coming legislative session. —Forrest Wilder
Who Guards the Guardians?
By Patrick Michels
Published July 6
Guardianships are increasingly common, a trend typically attributed to an aging populace and scattered families. In Texas, the number of guardianships grew 60 percent from 2011 to 2015. Nearly $3 billion in personal wealth is under control of guardians in Texas, according to one recent estimate from state researchers. But even those who oversee the system and write its laws are only recently coming around to a troubling fact: In much of Texas, there is nobody watching these cases.
Ten large Texas counties run their own guardianship systems, with legally trained probate judges, court-appointed investigators and visitors — employees or volunteers who check up on people under guardianship — to ensure that a guardianship is still necessary and isn’t being used as a tool for abuse or theft. Dallas County, where Rosamond had lived for most of her life, has such a system. But she was in Lubbock County when her son Phil went to court. Lubbock County reported having 1,425 guardianships in August 2015, ranking eighth in the state both in total guardianships and guardianships per capita. The county has no system to ensure that guardians file required annual reports on the person they’re looking after, nor staff to check for evidence of fraud.