Home > Uncategorized > Advocacy group appears to say persons with even the most profound intellectual disability may not need guardians

Advocacy group appears to say persons with even the most profound intellectual disability may not need guardians

We are questioning statements from a leading organization seeking to reduce or eliminate guardianships that imply that a guardian may not be necessary even for some of the lowest functioning people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

In an email to me on September 27, Dari Pogach, a staff attorney with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging, stated that decisions to appoint or terminate guardians “should not be based on diagnosis or condition.”

That statement appears to imply that an individual’s diagnosed level of disability is irrelevant in determining whether that person needs a guardian; and therefore, even the most profoundly cognitively impaired persons may not need guardians.

The ABA Commission is working with the National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER) to replace guardianships with a more informal process called Supported Decision Making (SDM).

Under SDM, individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to “help them make decisions” about their care, finances, living arrangements and other areas. The network supporters can include family members, but they can also include corporate service providers, according to the Center for Public Representation, which is pushing for SDM in Massachusetts. 

COFAR is concerned that SDM, which is part of a growing effort to reduce or eliminate guardianships, could marginalize family members in decisions made about the care of their loved ones with developmental disabilities. That’s because it is primarily family members who seek to become guardians of incapacitated persons after they reach the legal age of adulthood at 18.

The VOR, a national advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities, adds that SDM “could weaken protections for those who are the most vulnerable.”

Pogach’s full statement to me was as follows:

The decision to appoint a guardian in the first place, or terminate the guardianship, should not be based on diagnosis or condition, but rather on the person’s ability to make their own decisions, with or without support and to be safe from abuse, neglect and exploitation (my emphasis).

The problem with this statement, in our view, is that it raises a troubling question. If clinicians are not required or allowed to consider an individual’s clinical level of disability, how can they determine what a person’s ability is to make their own decisions?  It would seem that in that case, that determination would become totally arbitrary.

Pogach’s statement draws no distinction between levels of intellectual or developmental disability, and appears to imply further that people even with the most severe or profound levels of such disabilities may be capable of making their own decisions about life choices and care without the need of a guardian.

Pogach was a panelist in an NCLER-sponsored webinar on August 22 that discussed efforts by the organization to terminate guardianships in a number of instances involving persons who were elderly or had developmental disabilities. As a member of the webinar audience, I submitted a written comment and a question to the webinar panelists.  Pogach’s September 27 email was in response to my comment and question.

In my comment to the webinar panel, I stated that COFAR was concerned that SDM could “marginalize family members who we have found often make the best guardians for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

I also noted that severe and profound levels of intellectual and developmental disability present very different issues from moderate levels of those conditions, and we did not necessarily see those distinctions made by the webinar panelists.

Finally, I posed the question whether any protections were possible under SDM to ensure that a family member would not be “outvoted” on an SDM team by providers, clinicians and others who may not have the same degree of interest in the wellbeing of the disabled individual.

In her September 27 email in response, Pogach included the following statement:

The purpose of SDM is not to marginalize family members. SDM is predicated on the person being at the center of the decision-making process, and that includes choosing who will act as a (network) supporter. It is also means the person can choose to agree or not to agree with everyone in their supported decision-making network, including providers, clinicians, and family members. (my emphasis)

This response raises further questions and concerns for us. It appears to imply that not only can an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability, no matter how severe or profound, make their own decisions about their care, they can overrule family members and others on their SDM team or network.

While that viewpoint might appear to be simply meaningless if it were to be applied to extremely low-functioning persons, it is nevertheless concerning because it further implies that family members, in particular, should not be making decisions about the care of their developmentally disabled loved ones.

Pogach’s statement added that:

When supported decision-making is working, the person does not follow the majority vote of the (SDM network) supporters. The role of the supporters is to listen, help the person understand their options, and help the person to make their own decision. (my emphasis)

As noted, this viewpoint appears to make no distinction between people who are elderly, for instance, and persons with developmental disabilities, or between high functioning individuals with developmental disabilities and those with severe or profound levels of disability.

The fact that support for SDM has become an ideological position is evident in a statement in a law journal article by Leslie Salzman, a prominent SDM proponent:

Virtually everyone has the ability to participate in the decisions affecting his or her life, with the possible exceptions of persons who are comatose or in a persistent vegetative state. (my emphasis)

For Salzman, it’s apparently more likely than not that even a person in a persistently unconscious state can participate in making decisions about their care.

In an October 1 email in response to Pogach, I stated that we have seen instance after instance in which providers, clinicians, state agency managers, and other professionals have sided with each other and against family members in disputes over care of the individuals in question. The views and concerns of the family members are often dismissed or ignored in these cases, even though it is usually the family that knows the individual best. And, of course, family members are almost always the only people in this group with strong emotional bonds to the individual.

I also noted that the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (PL 106-402) states that “Individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are the primary decision makers regarding the services and supports such individuals and their families receive…” (my emphasis)

No distinction made between family members and professionals as guardians

While abuses in the guardianship system certainly occur, we think the potential for abuse is greater when professional guardians are involved than when family members are guardians. DDS pays attorneys and corporate entities to provide guardianship services to persons in cases in which family members are not available or have been removed as guardians.

As we have reported, there is relatively poor oversight of the professional guardianship system, at least in Massachusetts.

However, while SDM might be seen as a solution to the abuses committed by professional guardians, we are concerned that it may just shift the potential for exploitation from those professional guardians to corporate providers.

These state-funded providers have a direct financial stake in the care of persons with developmental disabilities. As such, including providers in an SDM network establishes a potential conflict of interest. Yet, the Center for Public Representation, a prominent SDM supporter, suggests that an SDM network can include “family members, co-workers, friends, and past or present providers.”

We have also reported that many of the same organizations that are advocating for SDM as an alternative to guardianships, including the Center for Public Representation, have also been involved in efforts to restrict congregate care and promote privatization of care for the developmentally disabled.

In sum, we do agree that significant reforms are needed in the guardianship/probate court system with respect to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But we see that exploitation as being due primarily to rampant privatization and its connection to poor governmental oversight of professional guardians, and not to the appointment of family members as guardians.

SDM could be a viable component of the reform of the current system, provided there is an acknowledgement that SDM is not appropriate or suitable in every instance and that there are persons who simply cannot reliably make their own life choices and will ultimately need to have guardians. In cases in which SDM is determined to be an appropriate option, a way needs to be found to ensure that the family member or members on the SDM network remain the primary decision maker(s) on the network.

I noted to Pogach that the following are some of the additional reforms we have proposed to the system: 

  • Increased financial oversight of the corporate provider system and the DDS/probate guardianship system.
  • Passage of legislation requiring probate court judges to presume that family members are suitable guardians of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • The provision of free legal assistance to family members and guardians who been barred from contact with their loved ones in the DDS system or who have otherwise faced retaliation from the Department or from providers.
  • The provision of free legal assistance to family members whose guardianships are challenged by DDS.
  • A policy statement by DDS that the Department will make every effort to comply with the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, and, in particular, the statement in the law that individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are the primary decision makers.

We’re anxious to hear back from Pogach on this. Unfortunately, the movement to reduce or eliminate guardianshps appears to be yet another area in which ideology is replacing both common sense and scientific, evidence-based policy making. We need to maintain those latter values.

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  1. Anonymous
    • October 10, 2018 at 5:14 pm

      The link above from an anonymous poster is to an article about exploitation by professional guardians. This actually corroborates one of the points made in my post — that there is exploitation in the probate court system of the elderly and disabled by professional guardians.

      We don’t think family members are the problem here. They usually are the most suitable people to be guardians.

  2. Marcus Günther
    October 10, 2018 at 2:54 am

    David, I wonder if the new legislation in Ireland in relation to SDM is more appropriate. It a) precludes service providers from being assisted decision makers and b) it has provisions for “Decision-Making Representative ” in cases where “assisted decision making” is not possible. Overview: http://www.citizensinformationboard.ie/downloads/relate/relate_2016_04.pdf Full text: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2015/act/64/enacted/en/index.html

    • October 10, 2018 at 5:05 pm

      Thanks for that information, Marcus. That’s very interesting. Will review it.

  3. Gloria
    October 10, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    I cannot believe what I just read–that would be so unjust for both the parent/guardian and their child, if guardianship were dissolved. I have a special needs daughter and have had to be influential in her care as a parent and a guardian while she has been in the system for ~42 years (she is now 48). A guardian’s responsibility is to be sure that the person they are guardian for is getting the proper care, being treated well, physically, emotionally, and mentally. I do not see this happening with a court appointed guardian.

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