(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: BIFOCAL Vol. 35, Issue 3.)
The Arlington County Volunteer Guardianship Program in Virginia has been around for over 28 years. Created in 1986 to address the growing need for more court appointed fiduciaries for the county’s human services clients, this program is one of a small number of volunteer-based guardianship programs in the entire country. Currently, it is the only one of its kind in the state.
Although there are a number of public guardianship programs in the state of Virginia that are authorized to serve a specific number of clients, the beauty of Arlington’s program is that it makes a tremendous impact in meeting the needs of incapacitated individuals through the power of volunteerism.
Until the creation of the Volunteer Guardianship Program, Arlington County’s Human Services Case Managers relied heavily on the Sheriff’s office to provide “guardians of last resort” to individuals who had no one to take on the fiduciary responsibility as a court-appointed guardian of the person or conservator over finances and assets (or sometimes both).
This is not ideal because Sheriff’s offices are not in the business of managing individual medical and financial affairs. Plus, they do not have the manpower to manage the ongoing needs of a client. Luckily for the Department of Human Services in Arlington, the Volunteer Guardianship Program is now able to provide volunteers to take on these roles—volunteers like Barbara Fenton!
In the mid 1980’s, Barbara Fenton chaired Arlington’s Commission on Aging and was a strong advocate for serving the needs of older adults. Her advocacy work at that point in time and belief in the importance of these issues led her to become the legal guardian of an aging World War II veteran.
The experience moved Fenton so much that she was compelled to share her experience with the Arlington Agency on Aging as well as the Arlington County Bar Association and the County Board. In part due to Fenton’s experience and zeal for her new role as guardian, a collaborative effort and eventually a program were born!
Since the mid 1980’s, the program has had a strong pool of volunteers following Fenton’s legacy, including attorneys serving pro bono. Over the years, these volunteers and attorneys have served incapacitated individuals from the Arlington community in the role of guardian of the person as well in the role of conservator over finances and assets.
Although most of these incapacitated individuals were, and still are, disadvantaged clients of the Department of Human Services, some were later discovered to have significant assets that needed management.
The following two case vignettes from Barbara Green, program volunteer and Certified Public Accountant, show the difference that a volunteer can make in the life of an individual who needs help.
Case example 1:
When Randy Feliciano, the program coordinator of Arlington County’s Volunteer Guardianship Program, first asked me to serve as guardian and conservator for one of his clients, I had no idea what to expect. My first appointment was as conservator for a 79-year-old woman with dementia who had not filed a tax return in nine years. The IRS had a lien on her property and had been regularly emptying her bank account to pay amounts they thought were due. The client hoarded and was a heavy smoker living in unsafe conditions. She had a life-threatening health condition that had received no medical attention. Despite all this, she still held a full-time job and had been going to work every day until recently when her condition became unmanageable.
Talk about jumping right in! During my first nine months as conservator, I moved this client to an assisted living community, got her overdue tax returns filed (most of which had refunds coming), got the lien removed from her property, fixed up her condo (painted, re-carpeted, replaced fixtures, repaired appliances, and removed all the clutter), sold the condo, and filed the forms necessary for her retirement from the federal government.
When I went through all the unopened mail (some back as far as 2003), I saw all the overdraft fees and late charges and penalties that the client had been paying and realized how much she could have saved if she’d had someone helping her earlier. Her apartment was full of cigarette butts, beer cans, and old takeout containers: evidence of the way she had been living.
This client now lives safely in her new apartment at a local assisted living residence. There is now staff to help and keep her surroundings clean and orderly. She seems much more relaxed and is always happy to see me. It is very gratifying to me to be able to tell her that all her finances are straightened out now!
Case Example 2:
My second appointment, as guardian and conservator for an 89-year-old client, resulted when Adult Protective Services (APS) found her living in a fourth floor walk-up apartment in a building that was about to be gutted. She was the only remaining tenant and was required to vacate the premises. Only days before the start of construction work in her building, APS moved her (with much protest) to an assisted living community. In the absence of any relatives, I was appointed by the court two days later and encountered a very angry lady who felt she had been tricked into moving.
Because most of her belongings had been disposed of during the move and because of her cognitive impairment, APS and I could provide little help with locating items and, more significantly, her important documents. I had to play detective to figure out what assets she had and where they were.
The movers had also found over $30,000 in cash in the client's apartment, hidden in various places, and they were honest enough to turn it over to APS. My first job as her guardian was to take the many bags and purses full of money (in small bills) to the bank and sit with the tellers for hours as they counted it all out and filled out the required forms to deposit the cash. In the weeks that followed, I slowly discovered her assets and negotiated with the holders of the funds to transfer them to the new conservatorship account I set up for her.
The client is happy today and no longer the angry person I initially encountered, a person who had mainly eaten takeout pizza because she had no other way to get food. She eats three nutritious meals a day now and is an active participant in community activities. Despite her memory challenges, she asks me for assurance that her bills are being paid and tells me that she’s always paid her bills and wants them all paid now. She is very frugal and never wants me to buy her anything or to spend any money because she says she worked hard for that money and doesn’t want me to spend it. The client is happy to see me when I come to deliver the many magazines she gets (that now get forwarded to me with the rest of her mail). She has many new friends and only rare episodes of anger over her move to the new assisted living community.
These experiences are personally very gratifying and the clients are both grateful to me in their own ways. Their lives are better now because of my skills and what I’ve been able to do for them, and I’m happy that the Arlington guardianship program brought us together. I initially told Randy that I like complex financial cases (given my background) and I guess he took me at my word!
Barbara’s experiences are a good example of some of the challenges faced and the great benefits garnered while serving in the capacity of a guardian—specifically as a volunteer guardian. Being able to impact a person’s life in such a deep way is a rare opportunity, and one that has a long-lasting effect on both parties.
The volunteer guardians and conservators in Arlington’s program share a strong desire to improve the quality of life of the individuals they serve. And, many of the volunteers form a personal bond with their clients (a secondary benefit of their volunteer service). What better way to enrich the lives of two people than to match them up in this way. And for these reasons, the program has enjoyed many years of success! ■