New York’s Guardianship System Is Broken. Will Lawmakers Pay for a Modest Fix?

As New York lawmakers hammer out a more than $200 billion budget this week, they may include $5 million to improve the state’s troubled guardianship system, which oversees the physical and financial welfare of tens of thousands of New Yorkers who the courts have said cannot care for themselves.

The modest allotment, which was advanced by the state Senate, would continue to fund a statewide hotline that launched last June and has advised hundreds of people considering guardianship for their relatives or friends. And it would give new support to nonprofits that provide services to poor adults who have nobody else to help them — known in the industry as “the unbefriended.”

“It’s not going to fix the whole problem, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Kimberly George, a leader of Guardianship Access New York, which lobbied for the additional money.

The relatively small price tag doesn’t mean the Senate’s proposal will make the final cut in this week’s budget talks; the assembly and Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, have proposed even less in their spending plans: just $1 million to continue the guardianship hotline. Neither the governor’s office nor Speaker Carl Heastie responded to requests for comment on the gap. The three parties must now reach an agreement on the issue — and the overall budget — by Thursday.

The effort to secure more public funding for guardianship follows a series of stories by ProPublica last month highlighting how New York’s overtaxed and loosely regulated guardianship system is failing thousands of vulnerable people. Part of the problem, the reporting showed, is a dearth of guardians for poor New Yorkers — something the Senate proposal would help address. New York City, for instance, relies on private attorneys who work the cases for free, along with a small network of nonprofits. In recent years, two such groups abruptly shut down due to financial strains.

But the legislative proposal does not address the system’s lax oversight of those guardians.

In New York City, there are 17,411 people in guardianships — 60% of the statewide total — and only 157 examiners to scrutinize how guardians handle their wards’ finances and care, according to data from the courts. In some cases, ProPublica found, abuse, neglect or fraud went on for years before it was noticed by authorities — if it was noticed at all.

Advocates have long pushed for a comprehensive overhaul but said any additional resources in the budget would improve the existing system, which is stretched beyond capacity. “The problem is so big, and the population is continuing to age and the need is growing so rapidly, that if we wait for a whole solution, nothing is going to be fixed and it’s just going to get worse,” said George, who also heads Project Guardianship, a nonprofit group that serves as guardian to about 160 New York City wards.

She and others hope the Senate’s proposal is just the first step in a series of legislative actions. Legislators remain in session until June.

Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Long Island Democrat who last year secured the initial $1 million to launch the statewide guardianship hotline, is leading the campaign for the additional funding. In February, he sent a letter — signed by 14 of his colleagues — to Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins asking her to back the $5 million appropriation, which would “stand to benefit thousands of aging and incapacitated New Yorkers.”

“New York State is fortunate to have strong legal protections that entitle individuals access to guardianship services when necessary,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, this mandate is underfunded and there is currently no direct funding stream to ensure statutory compliance.”

Among the signatories were the chairs of the Aging, Health and Judiciary committees in the Senate. Assembly Member Charles Lavine, another Long Island Democrat and the chair of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, sent a similar letter to the assembly speaker in support of the $5 million proposal.

In addition to the budget deal, there are indications that Albany is considering more sweeping reforms.

Lavine said in a statement that he was “discussing” the problems highlighted by ProPublica with judicial officials “with a view towards enacting responsive legislation.” Assembly Member Amy Paulin, a Democrat who chairs the chamber’s Health Committee, called ProPublica’s reporting “concerning, if not distressing,” and said she planned on “looking more into this” after the budget is complete. And Gustavo Rivera, a fellow Democrat and Paulin’s counterpart in the Senate, said he was “open to reviewing” reforms to guardianship after the budget is approved so that lawmakers “can adequately improve a failing system that is exploiting too many vulnerable New Yorkers while enriching the pockets of a few.”

In addition to providing more money for guardians and examiners, experts say lawmakers could strengthen the examination process, mandate more stringent training for guardians and implement maximum staff-to-ward ratios that keep caseloads manageably low.

Lawmakers have known for decades that the guardianship system is in dire need of an upgrade to meet the needs of those it serves. Indeed, shortly after they passed the law that governs adult guardianships 30 years ago, judges pleaded with Albany to provide critical funding for the indigent and to institute other reforms. Those efforts were unsuccessful, and in the decades since, others have made similar trips to the capitol, producing reports and holding roundtables highlighting the system’s failures. Yet these efforts have had little effect.

Advocates hope that will change given the state’s aging population — an estimated 5.6 million New Yorkers will be 60 or older by 2030 — and Hochul’s plan to help meet its needs. Judges have said the elderly make up a significant segment of those in guardianship since many who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease need help caring for themselves.

Arthur Diamond, a former supervising guardianship judge on Long Island who has long called for reforms, said he was cautiously optimistic that state legislators and judicial leaders were finally serious about rectifying the system’s deep-seated problems.

“I think that if a year from now, we’re in the same spot, I’m going to give up,” he said of his advocacy. “But these people told me in good faith that they were interested and wanted to help, they told me they are working on remedies, and I take them at their word.”