Butler County program leading way in guardianship overhaul

For the Anandpura family, the unthinkable could become more complicated because their daughter, Parul, has autism.

“Let’s say you two were in a car accident, the judge is the superior guardian and so he would pull her file and read about her from the stuff you have sent in. But that would be it,” DeLong explained to the Anandpura family as they met at Safe Haven Farm in Madison Twp. The farm is home to 16 adults with autism.

Changes at the state level now require all court-appointed guardians — lawyers and other professionals as well as family members and caregivers — be required to take training, whether they’re caring for an elderly person with dementia or a young adult with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

“The goal is to provide uniformity and consistency to Ohio’s guardianship system by providing clear guidance for best practices,” said Christy Tull, director of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Judicial College.

The court released the new minimum requirements in March, after years of study and a 2014 Columbus Dispatch investigation that revealed how the state’s patchwork of local rules had failed some of its most vulnerable residents.

The meeting DeLong is having with the Anandpura family is one of more than 1,000 that will happen across the county as part of a program launched by Butler County Probate Judge Randy Rogers.

In April, Rogers sent DeLong, his chief investigator, and a handful of interns to meet face-to-face with all of Butler County’s 1,100 guardians and their wards. DeLong has already met with about 550 people.

“I want to know all of our people so that when the judge looks at that, if that would ever happen, I want him to know who she is, so it’s not just a case number, I want him to have a sense of who she is …” she told the Anandpuras.

The Butler County program has received praise from the Ohio Supreme Court.

“That’s quite an undertaking for them,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said. “It’s a good program. I commend the judge for doing that.”

Almost half of the county’s guardianships are for people with developmental disabilities, DeLong estimated, and the rest are for the mentally ill and the elderly. She said there are times when establishing a guardianship can be difficult.

“A lot of times they don’t want to have a guardian, so some of our elderly folks think it’s crazy and they are competent and they don’t need a guardian,” she said. “They get angry about that, and who is it and how did that start and why are they doing it. They get upset with all that.”

The county’s guardianship program has been held up as a model for the state largely due to the court’s partnership with LifeSpan, according to Rogers.

“Butler County has been known for many, many years for its guardianship program,” he said. “It is administered by LifeSpan, which covers about 200 of our 1,100 guardianships. It’s a model for the state.”

Lisa Fry, LifeSpan’s guardian manager, said she and her six guardians visit their charges monthly, which is crucial.

The new rules say guardians must have contact with their wards at least quarterly.

“We meet with our clients every month and that does help with the rapport,” Fry said. “We put supports around that client, we try to keep them in a least restrictive environment and support them in the community or a facility where they are living. We advocate for them and seeing them every month is beneficial because over a period of time they get to know us and know we are there to help them.”

There is another effort going on regarding the guardianship world in Butler County at Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center.

Rogers has forged a new partnership with the center by offering its students internships. The center is also in the throes of surveying all probate courts in the state.

“We’re hoping to collect information about the number of guardianship cases in Ohio and get kind of a picture of what the guardians look like, get a picture of what the wards look like,” research associate Heather Reece said. “We also want to see what the challenges are and we are going to be looking for innovative programs that we can highlight.”

The chief justice said probably the most important piece of the new rules is the training. She said there could be parents who have been caring for their children all their lives who might wonder why they need to be trained.

If there is money involved — from Social Security or the developmentally disabled person’s job — there has to be accountability, O’Connor said.

“The training is the key to the whole thing, to make the guardians understand how important it is to be responsible and to follow the court rules with regard to their ward,” she said. “Obviously when you are spending money for your ward, sometimes it’s just a nominal amount that comes in but sometimes it could be millions of dollars.”

This article contains previous reporting by the Columbus Dispatch.

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