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This Michigan nonprofit helped derail guardianship reforms, called AG effort a 'task farce'

Posted at 3:24 PM, Jan 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-06 04:53:03-05

(WXYZ) — It was supposed to be bi-partisan legislation that would help our state’s most vulnerable people.

But instead of sailing through the state legislature, several proposed guardianship reforms have stalled.

In Michigan, if a court declares you legally incapacitated, a judge can appoint a guardian for you, which means you can no longer make your own legal, medical or financial decisions.

Back in 2021, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force helped launch bi-partisan bills designed to better protect people who are put under guardianship.

But those bills never got signed into law thanks in part to professional guardians who did not want the same changes.

For 5 years, the 7 Investigators have been exposing problems in Michigan’s guardianship system.

“It's disgusting. Our elderly people shouldn't be a commodity and shouldn't be able to be trafficked by these people,” said Gretchen Sommer.

A judge appointed a professional guardian instead of family member for Sommer’s aunt, Barbara Delbridge, and her uncle, Bob Mitchell, back in 2018.

“Kept them hostage, took them from their families, locked them behind a six-and-a-half-foot privacy fence and just drained their estate, researched how to sell off their property,” said Sommer.

The guardian billed Bob and Barb’s estate for more than $376,000 in fees.

Our investigations helped fuel new reforms crafted by Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force, and in 2021, after years of work, they introduced four bills to change the state law.

“We felt as though it would completely change the face of protection of seniors in Michigan,” Nessel told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Here are a few of the things the bills would have mandated:

- Certification for professional guardians

- Judges would have to better explain on the record why they’re appointing a professional guardian instead of a family member

- And they would have increased the number of times guardians have to visit their wards.

But the bills did not get signed into law.

One of the biggest opponents: the Michigan Guardianship Association, a non-profit advocacy group for professional guardians.

“The Guardianship Association especially kept moving the goalposts. So, whenever they would bring up a point and it seemed like legitimate point and that point would get addressed, they would say,’ well, that's not good enough. What about this other thing,’” said Nessel.

Even though members of the Michigan Guardianship Association (MGA) were on the Elder Abuse Task Force, the 7 Investigators have discovered audio recordings and photos that reveal just how hard the association was working against the legislation.

Pictures taken of a PowerPoint presentation at the MGA’s April 2022 conference reveal the MGA’s lobbyist, Robert Kennedy, referring to Nessel’s task force as the Attorney’s General’s Task Farce.

Related:

This is how Kennedy described it in a recording provided to us by someone who attended the conference:

“No – that’s supposed to say farce, not force. Farce. So, it’s the AG’s task farce as I call it, and it is the task force on elder abuse. This has nothing to do with elder abuse this has only to do with reforming the practice of guardianship. In our AG’s opinion, reform means put you out of business,” said Kennedy.

Web Audio Extra | Robert Kennedy at the MGA's April conference

Web Extra: Robert Kennedy at the MGA’s April 2022 conference

During his update about the proposed bills, Kennedy told MGA members how his team was constantly calling legislators to push back against the legislation. The recordings reveal, Kennedy had other choice words for the Task Force that’s comprised of more than 130 assistant attorney generals, members of the Michigan Supreme Court, and senior citizen advocates:

“So, the Elder Abuse Task Force, you’ve heard about, you’ve read about it, it’s like a circus road show comes to your town once in a while,” said Kennedy.

Related:

After the 7 Investigators played the recordings for the Attorney General, she removed the MGA representatives from her task force.

“For them to call this a farce instead of what it is, which is a very well-intentioned effort to protect as many seniors as possible, is galling. And, you know, I hope they're happy they're not going to have a say in this task force anymore,” said Nessel.

Web Video Extra | Interview with Attorney General Dana Nessel

Web Extra: Interview with Attorney General Dana Nessel

“I don't think the task force is a task farce,” said Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns). “I found the members who I dealt with and the attorney general's office to be very helpful and to be very realistic.”

Rep. Filler sponsored the legislation and plans to help introduce the bills again.

“After talking truth to what we were working on and some of the compromises we made, we did vote it out of the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. And if I got to do that out of a well-vetted, well-run committee, I have confidence going forward that I can find the support in the next caucus," said Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns).

The Michigan Guardianship Association declined to comment on the “Task Farce” statements. Their lobbyist Robert Kennedy released a written statement:

“My reference was related to the name the AG chose to use for the task force. It is called the “Elder Abuse Task Force”, however, based on 3 years of their work, it is our opinion that it should have been called the “Guardianship Reform Task Force”, and if you review some of the proposals being discussed, it could very well be called the “Guardianship Elimination Task force.” It was likely an attempt at humor to lighten the mood of a room full of people who feel like they are under appreciated and constantly under attack. As for mocking their work, I have no recollection of mocking the actual work of the taskforce… MGA, and I as their representative, will continue to oppose any legislation which makes a guardian’s job serving their wards more difficult, while not actually providing any protections to the ward, especially those which increase a guardian’s workload without adequately compensating them for their time.”

The MGA lobbied to have their own bills requiring certification introduced last summer, but those failed as well.

The Attorney General says no one wants to eliminate guardians, but those who’ve lost precious time with loved ones under guardianship say reform does need to happen.

“Something has to be done,” said Sommer.

In late December, Nessel announced that former Macomb County Probate Judge Carl Marlinga will be leading the Elder Abuse Task Force. Marlinga was also a former Circuit Court Judge and Macomb County Prosecutor. Nessel said she hopes that by adding someone with Marlinga’s experience to lead the team, more probate judges will understand the need for changes in the system and support the legislation.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473