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Extra Eyes for Vulnerable Adults

Volunteer 'court visitors' protect against unscrupulous guardians

Volunteers Marquetta and Bob White, Arizona Guardian Review Program

Volunteers Marquetta and Bob White, of Mesa, talk to Star Felty, right, of the Guardian Review Program. Felty hopes to recruit 50 others to check on the welfare of adult wards of the court. — Chris Hinkle

Dawn Savattone received an urgent phone call from a man who had been moved into a care home by his daughter. The other residents, he complained, had advanced dementia. He had no one to talk to, and he felt isolated.

He wanted out of the group home, but his daughter didn't agree. A court had appointed the daughter as her father's guardian, so she had the final say in the matter.

Savattone, an ombudsman at Phoenix's Area Agency on Aging for 14 years, listened with experienced ears. She knew how to alert the court, which replaced the guardian. Savattone also was able to find a different care home for the man.

See also: Can a court-appointed conservator be sued?

The man was lucky to know whom to call. Thousands of more vulnerable wards of the court can't call or can't communicate because of dementia, Savattone said.

People are provided with guardians when it's decided by the courts — often after a request by a relative — that they are incapable of caring for themselves, frequently because of dementia.

On behalf of the wards, guardians make decisions that most people make for themselves about housing, food, medical care and finances.

When it works well, the guardian helps ensure a safe life for someone who can't manage alone.

But that doesn't always happen, and wards "can be victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation — and no one knows," Savattone said.

Scant agency oversight

No agency regularly checks on the wards unless someone brings a complaint to adult protective services, to the courts or to an ombudsman like herself, Savattone said.

That's about to change, thanks to a newly revitalized program in Maricopa County to send volunteers, called "court visitors," into the homes of wards of the court, who usually live with family members or in a care home.

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