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February 1 marks Conservatorship and Guardianship Abuse Awareness Day in the United States. This annual day of observance seeks to raise awareness about individuals facing abuse or exploitation in the guardianship system.

Legal Guardianship

An individual living with certain disabilities may benefit greatly from having a legal guardian. (Note that some states use the term “conservator” rather than guardian.) If a person with the disability cannot make decisions crucial to their well-being, a guardian can support them. Guardians are responsible for serving in the best interest of the person with the disability, their ward.

A guardian or conservator can assist the ward in many areas of their lives. This may include managing the ward’s assets or securing housing that suits their unique needs. Different levels of guardianship can dictate what level of control a guardian has over their ward.

Downsides of Guardianship

The process of appointing a guardian or conservator can be time-consuming and costly. It may also require ongoing court supervision. Although this can be beneficial for preventing abuse, it can also make management of assets somewhat cumbersome.

A guardianship can sometimes also prove more restrictive than necessary. In some cases, a guardian or conservator may have control over their ward's personal decisions. You may recall when Britney Spears accused her father (and conservator) of having too much control over her life and her assets. Fortunately, alternatives to guardianship are available in many states, including limited guardianships and supported decision-making.

Sadly, some people serving as guardians, even family members, may take advantage of their wards. People with disabilities can be more likely to suffer physical, mental, financial, and other types of abuse than others. Certain impairments might prevent someone from protecting themselves from physical abuse. Mental illness could lead an individual to be more trusting of those who are seeking to exploit them financially.

The bottom line is that people with disabilities, as well as their friends and families, need to know how to recognize and combat abuse.

Signs of Abuse

Abuse can occur despite your best efforts, so it pays to be on the lookout for signs that someone is taking advantage of a person with disabilities. Here are some things to look for:

Physical Abuse

  • Unexplained bruising or other injuries
  • Preventing the ward from seeing their doctor
  • Poor hygiene
  • Improperly cared for injuries or infections
  • Dehydration
  • Malnourishment

Financial Abuse

  • An unfamiliar person brings the person with disabilities to the bank
  • The individual with the disability cannot explain where their money goes
  • Bounced checks or unauthorized withdrawals
  • A caregiver or family member isolates the person with disabilities from other family members or friends

Emotional Abuse

  • Isolating the ward from their loved ones, or preventing them from receiving mail or phone calls
  • Sudden change in behavior or increased emotional distress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Preventing Abuse

The best way to prevent abuse in the first place is to remain active in your friend or loved one's life. If a person with a disability lives in a group home or nursing facility, consider visiting regularly. This can give you an opportunity to spot signs of abuse quickly.

Get to know your loved one’s guardian and caretakers if possible. The more tuned into you are to a ward’s life, the more likely you’ll be able to put a stop to problems before they become more serious.

If someone you care about with disabilities has access to a significant amount of money, you may consider creating a special needs trust for their benefit. This can help protect their finances.

What Is a Special Needs Trust?

special needs trust is a type of trust that can help a person with disabilities pay for certain expenses. With this trust, an independent trustee manages funds in the trust. They can serve as a buffer between the person with the disability and those who may be looking to take advantage of them.

Available Resources to Report and Stop Guardianship Abuse

With the intervention of a court, it is possible to remove a guardian or limit a guardianship. This may be necessary when a guardian is abusive or fails to carry out their duties.

If you suspect that a disabled loved one is a victim of abuse, immediately document your concerns and contact the proper authorities. For guidance, reach out to a qualified special needs planning attorney near you as soon as possible. They will have expertise in the guardianship laws specific to your state.

The following resources also may prove essential:

Do not hesitate to speak up if you recognize signs of abuse; your loved one's life could depend on it. Remember that the best prevention is to be involved from the start.

In addition, consult the following articles for more information:

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