Op-Ed: Cash for Seniors? Pennsylvania’s Adult Guardianships Lack Oversight

By Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33)

Lately, I’ve heard from distressed constituents who say that, ever year, Pennsylvania courts deem an untold number of senior citizens incompetent, imprison them in far-flung institutions and cut off their communication with the outside world, all for the sake of seizing billions of dollars from the estates they now control.

Don’t believe them? Annually, Pennsylvania collects estate funds worth roughly $2 billion after assuming guardianships for seniors. This, despite state laws and recommendations from the Department of Aging to pursue guardianship “as a last resort.”

The statistics regarding just how many seniors live under guardianships is unclear, according to a 2016 report on elder abuse from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System (NAMRS) to better track instances of abuse and neglect. A NAMRS analysis from 2020 reported nearly 38,000 instances of financial exploitation from across all 50 states. About 16% of those cases were substantiated, according to the report.

Overall, NAMRS investigated nearly 776,000 suspected cases of elder abuse and neglect, of which one-third were corroborated by evidence. About 14% of these victims lived in nursing homes or residential facilities when these investigations were first initiated.

Still skeptical? Take it from Katherine Johnson, the former administrator for the Area Agency on Aging in Westmoreland County, who told a congressional Special Committee on Aging in 2018 she knew of at least one guardianship agency that mismanaged the assets of one of its clients, resulting in the senior’s eviction from a personal care home and $25,000 in lost income over a 22-month period.

Despite this, Johnson testified, the agency continued collecting guardianship and attorney fees, while leaving a balance for life insurance unpaid and ignoring its responsibility to liquidate the senior’s assets.

Worst of all, despite this egregious conduct, this investigation closed after the allegations went unsubstantiated. Johnson said Westmoreland County courts stopped appointing the agency as a guardian, however.

And this is far from the only case of exploitation and neglect. My office has received reports from family members who say the state makes sweeping claims of incompetency, takes control of assets and sequesters the senior in a far-off facility. Some say their family members can’t call home, receive visits or go outside for fresh air.

Courts appear reluctant, or downright refuse, to grant hearings for appeals or appoint attorneys for the families seeking relief. Judges have no obligation to consider expert testimony, review medical records or contemplate other suitable placements for the senior citizen, no matter how hard the family protests.

Johnson, in her testimony, agreed that the state’s guardianship system fails on multiple fronts. We leave incapacitated residents, with few or no family members, “at the mercy of” whatever agency agrees to handle their assets and medical care.

There’s no checks and balances to monitor whether a guardian agency is performing the duties required. State-required reports of financial activity often go unfiled, while many of the agencies themselves operate without performing background checks, establishing minimum training requirements or withstanding oversight from regulators or courts.

While family members routinely abuse, neglect and exploit seniors, Johnson said the risk increases “exponentially” with professional guardianship agencies.

This situation warrants further investigation. Our senior citizens are some of the most vulnerable among us. Who, if not their guardians, will give them a voice?  Who is going to investigate this cruel scheme?

We’ve seen power structures in this state abuse their authority for financial gain before. The infamous “Cash for Kids” scandal revealed that judges in Luzerne County accepted $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two for-profit facilities for sending juvenile delinquents – many of whom were wrongly adjudicated – to their care.

Those involved were later found guilty on a litany of federal charges, leaving a scar on the state’s juvenile justice system and instigating reforms at the state level to prevent such an egregious abuse of power from happening again.

Except that it can happen again and maybe, it already has.

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