The Last Safety Net

In 1992, Harris County changed the way it cares for those who can't manage their own lives. Four and a half years later, social workers are swamped, and people like Miss Natalie suffer.

For most of her 70 years, Miss Natalie, as she's affectionately called, lived as a semi-recluse, pursuing a life of guarded eccentricity in a modest home on the southeast edge of the Fourth Ward. But soon after the death of her domineering, overly protective mother, her eccentricities gave way to self-endangerment.

Three and a half years ago, Miss Natalie was hospitalized after one of her six dogs bit her. While she was recuperating, medical and Harris County authorities concluded that she was no longer capable of managing her own affairs. Suddenly, the aged woman found herself and her possessions controlled by an employee of the county's fledgling Guardianship Program.

Shortly after the county placed her in a small boarding facility for the elderly, thieves broke into Miss Natalie's vacant home and stole expensive sterling and jewelry. In the opinion of her attorney, Miss Natalie's inexperienced county-appointed guardian had not taken adequate precautions to secure the woman's house and valuables. The attorney also believes that stress related to the break-in accelerated Miss Natalie's decline into a near-vegetative state.

Last year, a lawsuit was filed on Miss Natalie's behalf against the social worker and the county. But early this year, a county probate judge threw the suit out, ruling that even if the social worker/guardian had been negligent, as a county employee, he was immune from liability under state law.

In other words, though Miss Natalie never wanted a guardian, and though the one that was forced upon her allegedly bungled her affairs, no one can be held responsible for her loss.

Although she was unsuccessful in court, Miss Natalie's case focused outside attention on the flaws of the county's alarmingly overburdened Guardianship Program. It's a program where county employees are saddled with caseloads double the number recommended when it was established. It is also a system in which no one can be held ultimately accountable -- at least not monetarily -- if something goes wrong.

In January 1992, Harris County created a tax-funded agency to provide guardianships for its incapacitated indigent; that is, for people who lack the mental or physical wherewithal to run their own lives, and don't have family members willing or qualified to run their lives for them or the money to pay someone else to care for them and their things. The county is nearly alone in providing the service: with the exception of Galveston, all other counties in the state either use volunteers to deal with the problem, or simply don't deal with it at all.

The Guardianship Program was created with the best of intentions. Prior to 1992, if a Harris County resident was found unable to manage his affairs and was basically without resources, a probate court judge would appoint an attorney ad litem to serve as guardian, at no cost to the person who needed assistance. The county paid the attorney's fee. But in June 1991, a series of articles by Houston Chronicle reporter Nancy Stancill pointed out that the legal practices of some attorneys in Harris County were composed almost exclusively of ad litem guardianship appointments. A few attorneys with multiple guardianships, Stancill's stories noted, were pulling down close to $100,000 a year through the system.

That same year, state Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth conducted hearings around the state about the guardianship problem in Texas. In those hearings, Harris County's ad litem guardianship method was criticized extensively.

"It wasn't working worth a damn," recalls Moncrief. "It appeared to be, in essence, a brother-in-law operation where ad litems who were close acquaintances to some of the judges who made those appointments were getting the lion's share of the appointments. There also appeared to be very little, if any, interaction between the attorneys and the wards themselves."

In the wake of the Chronicle series, Commissioners Court ordered the county budget office to conduct its own investigation of the cost and effectiveness of ad litem guardianships. The resulting study showed that during the previous fiscal year, the county paid $1.8 million to ad litem attorneys in guardianship cases -- up from $360,470 just three years earlier. The report also pointed out that there was little consistency in the manner in which the four probate court judges awarded fees to the attorneys. Additionally, the study questioned whether attorneys had enough social-work expertise to serve as guardians. The preparers of the report said they couldn't reach more definitive conclusions because the probate courts had failed to maintain sufficient data.

In November 1991, in what the probate judges now contend was a hasty rush to reform, Commissioners Court voted unanimously to create a guardianship program under the umbrella of the county's Department of Social Services. No longer would the county pay for the future appointment of attorneys as guardians, the commissioners decided. Instead, beginning in January 1992, county-employed social workers would handle all new indigent wards. Additionally, the county instructed the probate court judges to begin phasing out all of the old ad litem appointments and to transfer the existing guardianships to the new Guardianship Program.

Unfortunately, four and a half years after its creation, the Harris County Guardianship Program has not proven to be much of a change for the better. In addition to the new questions, such as accountability, that have arisen, the old questions -- such as how much the program costs -- remain. The Guardianship Program's funding is part of the Department of Social Services' budget, which, department officials say, is not broken down by its various divisions. The county budget office is currently conducting yet another study to determine how much indigent guardianships cost Harris County taxpayers.

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