May 23, 2019

Spotlight on North Carolina: Rethinking Guardianship

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 40, Issue 5.)

At least 25 states now have some form of ongoing multidisciplinary court-stakeholder partnership driving adult guardianship reform and promoting less restrictive options. These groups are often called WINGS – Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders. This series will profile several of these problem-solving guardianship groups, highlighting their accomplishments and challenges. For a complete list of state WINGS, see ambar.org/wings.
In an interview with BIFOCAL, Linda Kendall Fields talks about the challenges and achievements of the North Carolina “Rethinking Guardianship” group that she coordinates.

What are some of the concerns about adult guardianship practice in North Carolina that may need “rethinking?”

Like many other states, North Carolina’s guardianship system has offered limited oversight and accountability, limited information on alternatives and rights to legal counsel, and a lack of accessible education and training for guardians (particularly private guardians, including families).

How did the Rethinking Guardianship group originate?

Past efforts since 2013 to examine guardianship in the state had been narrowly focused on a specific guardianship issue. In 2015, the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services pursued a grant from the state Council on Developmental Disabilities to create a sustainable infrastructure to effect long-term changes in the guardianship system, promote less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and respect the rights of individuals in guardianship and those facing guardianship. The Rethinking Guardianship initiative was established by a statewide, long-term workgroup representing a range of guardianship issues based on the Collective Impact model for social change used by WINGS, the Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders. Working with individuals affected by guardianship and the many systems, including the court system, that are involved to support individual wellbeing and improve accountability is the objective.

Describe the multidisciplinary nature of the group and the stakeholders who participate.

The Rethinking Guardianship workgroup has grown to nearly 140 members over four years. Among them: clerks and assistant clerks of Superior Court; state legislators; state employees who work on disability and aging issues; Department of Social Services directors and social workers; private and public guardians; elder law and disability attorneys; aging and disability advocacy and provider organizations; families and individuals. The Steering Committee meets monthly to discuss issues and next steps.

What are the pros and cons of the group working outside of the court structure?                           

While the group was developed outside of the court, it has always sought and fostered close collaboration with the Conference of Clerks of Superior Court (CCSC) and the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). In fact, the workgroup holds its quarterly meetings at the AOC and has appointed staff from both the CCSC and the AOC serving on the workgroup and Steering Committee.

Pros to working outside of the court structure include having the freedom to explore issues and strategies without being constrained by political viewpoints or organizational limitations of time or commitment. Cons include the potential for less “buy-in” from court officials and having to “cross the divide” between the workgroup and leaders of both the CCSC and the AOC in order to make convincing arguments for changes in policy and  practice.

What have been the greatest accomplishments of Rethinking Guardianship so  far?

Among our greatest accomplishments:
1.  More than 20 stories from individuals, family members, and professionals who were impacted by guardianship were collected. These stories, along with relevant state and county data, formed the basis for a working statement of Shared Aspiration or “Common Agenda,” and will continue to drive the pursuit for effective solutions.

2. A website was created, Rethinking Guardianship: Building a Case for Less Restrictive Alternatives with Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), stories of individuals and families and guardianship, and comprehensive resources on guardianship and alternatives.

3. An educational video, “Understanding Guardianship,” was developed for private guardians and particularly for families.

4. An informational brochure was created, “Rethinking Guardianship: An Introduction to Options.”

5. Nearly 300 guardianship stakeholders participated in a summit to learn about guardianship reform efforts in North Carolina and across the country. The aim of the summit was to build awareness and support for legislative, policy and practice changes.

6. Legislation is pending in both chambers of the state General Assembly to enact a study bill that will facilitate major changes to the statute by the 2020 legislative session.

What have been the greatest challenges and how were they overcome?                           

Gaining the interest of, and assistance from, the clerks of Superior Court in guardianship reform has been difficult. Many cite time constraints as elected officials are tasked with multiple responsibilities. What’s more, North Carolina has 100 county-based jurisdictions and 100 clerks, making it an ongoing challenge to establish uniform standards of practice across the state.
As for the Administrative Office of the Courts, preliminary conversations took place with the director, including a court data system and court oversight/monitoring in line with Rethinking Guardianship goals. But recent turnover involving leadership has stalled efforts and the future is unclear.
Rethinking Guardianship members communicate frequently with clerks and the AOC to ask for input and share recommendations and actions. A great deal of effort has gone into developing trust with these critical partners and there is some evidence of increased buy-in and motivation for change.

What are the group’s goals for the future?

Furthering the work and extending the reach of the Rethinking Guardianship initiative so that all stakeholders in the guardianship system are educated about guardianship, less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, best practices, and current and emerging statutory language.

1. Achieving successful legislative reform and helping individuals understand the need for such reform to engage in advocacy and self-advocacy and to address guardianship practice changes and implications.

2. Improving the court data system as well as court monitoring and oversight. Existing data systems hinder individual wellbeing, guardian accountability, and effective program planning. Ultimately, improved data systems are critical to raising performance in North Carolina’s guardianship system.

3. Leveraging momentum and specific project goals to secure additional funding for Rethinking Guardianship into the future with the possibility of transitioning placement to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

4. Pursuing a greater focus on expanding the practice of alternatives to guardianship, including supported decision making, particularly with youth transitioning into adulthood as well as other individuals of all ages.       

Linda Kendall Fields

Clinical Assistant Professor

Linda Kendall Fields is a Clinical Assistant Professor with the Jordan Institute for Families at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work in Chapel Hill. She has dedicated over 35 years to building communities that are responsive to the needs and contributions of older adults, people with disabilities, and families in Minnesota, Oregon, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina.
During her career, Linda has led numerous government and health care initiatives aimed at supporting individuals and families living in the community and transitioning to the community from long-term care facilities.
In her capacity at UNC Chapel Hill, she is facilitating the statewide Rethinking Guardianship: A Person-Centered Approach initiative as well as North Carolina’s Dementia Capable Communities Strategic Plan.

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