May 23, 2019

WINGS Groups Take Off

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

Leaders of 15 multidisciplinary problem-solving groups driving adult guardianship reform and promoting less restrictive options met in April in Washington, D.C., in the Second National WINGS Coordinators Forum. Sponsored by the ABA Commission on Law and Aging and funded by the Administration for Community Living, these Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) leaders spent two days learning from each other and sharing best practices for overcoming obstacles and insufficient resources.

Making guardians more accountable, addressing abuse, and highlighting less restrictive options including supported decision-making were among the topics of discussion. The leaders also shared perceptions on the sustainability of the WINGS and other problem-solving reform networks in their states. Perhaps most important, they made contacts across states to help each other in tackling needed changes.

To date, at least 25 states now have some form of ongoing multidisciplinary court-stakeholder partnership spearheading adult guardianship reform. The 15 represented at the WINGS forum showed considerable variation. For example, 10 were from groups sponsored by the state’s highest court; four were from groups outside the court such as nonprofits, a university, and legal aid; and one was from a state that had both an in-court component and an outside stakeholder task force. They were launched between 2004 and 2017. Six were funded by the ABA Commission through a grant from the U.S. Administration on Community Living
(ACL) and nine developed through different paths. The participants described a variety of funding support ranging from substantial court support to a donation of $30 for bagels for each meeting. All shared a wide range of stakeholders and a commitment to improving the lives and self-determination of adults who are subject to, or potentially subject to, guardianship.

The WINGS forum was packed  with  discussion  of  problems  and  possible  solutions, showing how states are grappling with challenges in different ways.  These are a few examples:

What can courts, and WINGS stakeholders collaborating with courts, do to improve review and investigation of guardian and conservator reports? 
Participants described approaches in their states for the court to track guardian reports and flag problems.
In Anchorage, Alaska, the court has been reviewing all annual reports, and WINGS aims to replicate the process in other courts, along with a redesign of the report form. In Idaho, as initiated through the WINGS Supreme Court Guardianship and Conservatorship Committee, monitoring coordinators in each judicial district review reports for “red flags” and may make in- person visits to investigate problems. A system of “differentiated case management” assesses risk either pre-appointment or post-appointment to determine frequency and intensity of review and necessity of investigations.

Minnesota has a unique conservator e-filing system and a centralized account auditing program and is sharing the application with other states, although technological adaptation has proved difficult. Nevada legislation created a Guardianship Compliance Office to provide report auditing and investigative services to the district courts. In Oregon, WINGS stakeholders and others initiated a program in which trained volunteer “special advocates” in some jurisdictions visit individuals to bring information back to the court, but the program needs to be expanded to other areas of the state.  In other states, systematic review of reports is uneven or has not yet been developed, and the financial, technological, and judicial challenges are substantial.

How can we begin to develop data to spot problems and highlight systemic trends?
Alabama WINGS began by conducting an initial survey of its 68 probate courts. In Minnesota, the court’s e-filing system for conservators resulted in solid data sets that highlight needs and now the court is creating a similar e-filing system for guardians. In Nevada, the Guardian and Conservator Commission (a group similar to WINGS) reviews performance data from the largest district courts. North Carolina’s WINGS “Rethinking Guardianship” group [see sidebar] published reports with selected data and stories, focusing especially on restoration of rights. Virginia WINGS is working on case management system updates to determine the number of guardianship and conservatorship cases. All participants agreed that a lack of data is a key obstacle to driving change.

How can guardianship practices and proceedings become more consistent across the state?
Need for greater consistency was a common appeal throughout the forum. Some states are creating rules and revising forms. For instance, Alaska WINGS is working with the state Supreme Court on new rules and forms. The West Virginia WINGS is coordinating with the court on updating forms, and the Maryland Workgroup is overhauling forms as well.

How can we make it easier to get the court’s attention when there is a problem in a guardianship case?
Adults subject to guardianship are at a severe disadvantage in making their voices heard. They are generally unable to file a petition for court review and secure an attorney. Idaho has a complaint process allowing anyone to file informally, without a formal petition or need for counsel. An Idaho court rule permits the ex parte communication necessary for the court to review the complaint and make a response within a set timeframe. DC WINGS produced a complaint form.

What about training and assistance for guardians, conservators, as well as other stakeholders?
Alabama WINGS adapted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Managing Someone Else’s Money” guide for conservators, making it specific to the state and distributing it widely. Alaska WINGS is developing an income and expense tracker app to help guardians with record-keeping. The Maryland Court’s Guardianship Workgroup developed a mandatory training program for guardians throughout the state.
In Oregon, guardian training is required, and is offered in several counties through a program called Guardian Partners, which uses the fees to coordinate its “special advocates” visitor program. The Massachusetts Guardianship Policy Institute is rolling out a Massachusetts Guardianship Academy to offer training for guardians. Minnesota has created one-page handouts on “Tips for Guardians” and “Tips for Conservators.”
Several WINGS have sponsored training aimed at additional stakeholders. Florida WINGS is creating an e-learning guardianship module for judges and attorneys. Minnesota, Idaho, and Utah have developed bench cards for judges. Virginia WINGS produced a video and set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for the public on guardian and conservator proceedings. Several WINGS such as Minnesota and Massachusetts have sponsored annual summits to educate multiple stakeholders.

How can we highlight self-determination and choice for adults who are subject to, or potentially subject to, guardianship?
Leaders at the forum acknowledged the need for WINGS to balance strategies to monitor guardians and address abuse with strategies to maximize individual autonomy and voice. Participants described varying roles of WINGS and its stakeholder groups. For example, in Alaska and Indiana, WINGS played a key role in getting supported decision-making agreement bills passed, and both offered extensive trainings in use of less restrictive options and supported decision-making. Oregon WINGS conducted a “mapping project” to identify the availability and use of a range of decision-making options, and is now following up with training and education. North Carolina’s “Rethinking Guardianship” group has tracked and promoted cases for restoration of rights and has produced an “Introduction to Options” brochure for the public. Idaho WINGS convened a training for stakeholder groups on supported decision-making and other less restrictive options. Montana WINGS conducted a continuing legal education program focusing on less restrictive options.

WINGS has engaged in productive activities, but the needs for guardianship problem-solving are ongoing.  How can a multidisciplinary group like WINGS be sustainable?
In some states, like Idaho and Nevada, a permanent guardianship committee or commission fulfills a role similar to WINGS. In other states, the current chief justice has placed a high priority on improving guardianship practices and supports the work that a WINGS or similar court entity does. For instance, in Maryland, the Court’s Guardianship/Vulnerable Adults Workgroup of the Maryland Judicial Council Domestic Law Committee has had the consistent support of the Chief Justice. But transitions can prove challenging. Alabama WINGS anticipated a change in its chief justice and worked to get a legislative resolution recognizing the need for WINGS.
In a few states like Montana and Kentucky, WINGS has been created legislatively but must be bolstered with appropriations to make it impactful. And in some cases, WINGS models have developed outside of court, generally with court contacts or collaboration. Among them: North Carolina’s Rethinking Guardianship group in a school of social work; Indiana’s Statewide Adult Guardianship Task Force acting as an independent stakeholder group; West Virginia’s WINGS, which is coordinated by staff from the state Legal Services Corporation-funded program and the state protection and advocacy agency; and the Massachusetts Guardianship Policy Institute, a group similar to WINGS, which is supported by a guardian community trust.

This article is supported by grant No. 90EJIG0007-02-00 from the Administration for Community Living, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Grantees carrying out projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Therefore, points of view or opinions do not necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living or DHHS policy.

Erica Wood

Senior Attorney, ABA Commission on Law and Aging

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