D.C. Superior Court is not doing enough to ensure that elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded wards are being well cared for, according to a report by an independent legal committee.
The report focused on the court's probate division, which oversees the lives and funds of about 2,000 incapacitated people, usually by appointing a lawyer to manage their cases. The panel found that no one is reviewing thousands of reports filed by the caretakers about their wards' well-being and finances. The court also lacks a good system for removing bad caretakers, the report said.
The report called for new procedures to improve accountability among the appointed protectors, including the simple step of court employees reviewing required paperwork that now goes unread.
"Strong administrative intervention" by Chief Judge Rufus G. King III "is required immediately if [the probate division] is to function competently and professionally," said the report, which was given to King in late February. This week, he appointed a task force to study the report.
The committee issuing the report comprised nine lawyers involved in probate law and was formed by the Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the Council for Court Excellence, a judicial watchdog.
The 15-page report criticizes the Register of Wills, the administrative office that runs the division on a daily basis, describing "a pervasive air of secrecy" in that office that produces "a climate of uncertainty" among the lawyers and "fear on the part of the employees."
The committee urged that if the court adopts its recommendations, they be overseen directly by the judges and not the office of the Register of Wills. That office is headed by Constance G. Starks and functions like the clerk of court, directing and supervising the division.
King said he did not want to comment on the report until he knows "exactly what the facts are." The task force he appointed will review the recommendations and report to him by July 1 on what steps could be taken immediately. The new task force includes the two probate judges, Starks and several lawyers.
The committee's chairman, lawyer J. Gordon Forester, said many on the committee are disappointed that King responded by appointing another task force, saying that was "totally inadequate."
For its inquiry, the committee wanted to interview employees in the office of the Register of Wills, but Starks would allow that only if supervisors were present, the report said. Instead, the committee interviewed former court employees and issued a questionnaire to probate attorneys. The committee began its inquiry last year, saying at the time that the review was prompted by a Washington Post series in June on mistreatment and neglect by probate lawyers.
The Post reported that hundreds of court-appointed lawyers had violated court rules, including failing to file updates on their clients for years and mishandling money. In more than two dozen cases from 1995 to 2003, guardians took or could not account for tens of thousands of dollars of their clients' funds, according to records. In about 240 instances, attorneys were given new appointments even after judges had disciplined them for failures or been warned by court officials of problems.
In response, King issued a judicial order last year establishing stricter requirements and heightened scrutiny of caretakers. He promised that officials would more aggressively monitor the performance of guardians and barred attorneys from being paid until they certified that they had checked on their clients' health and fully accounted for their money.
The committee report, however, said that was inadequate. King's order, the report said, "merely ensures that reports are filed; it does not ensure fiduciary competence and honesty nor does it prevent [court-appointed protectors] from stealing funds from the estate or from investing conservatorship assets in family businesses or from making other inappropriate investments."
The report said some basic deficiencies in the system should be corrected. For example, guardians are required to submit reports to the court every six months, but the office of the Register of Wills does not review the reports, the committee found.
"The reports, as filed, are useless," the report said. "The resulting effect is that the Court fails to provide any measure of meaningful supervision over the ward's condition and care."
Conservators, who oversee finances, also are required to submit annual accountings. Auditors make sure the expenses are supported by checks and other receipts. But "no one reviews whether the expenditures achieve the purposes" for which the protector was appointed, the report said.