A change in state law should address problems with public guardians disclosed by a state audit.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln sponsored LB 920, creating the Office of Public Guardian with the judiciary branch of state government.
The law gives Nebraska courts authority to appoint public guardians from the office, an option courts didn’t have before, leading to the alleged abuse of the system by Judith Widener of Scottsbluff.
A state audit raised questions about the spending of Judith Widener of Scottsbluff and led to criminal charges being filed against her for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands from many of the more than 600 people whom she served as guardian.
According to the auditor’s office, “Widener masked her alleged embezzlement through a complex array of credit cards and over 40 bank accounts containing more than $600,000.”
The Scottsbluff Star-Herald reported Widener, who is 70, was formally charged with theft by taking, a felony. Widener ran Safe Haven Inc., a company claiming to be an online debt and credit counseling firm. The company handled accounts of persons appointed legal guardians to handle the financial affairs of the elderly or disabled.
Coash says a lack of options led to the alleged abuse.
“And when they couldn’t find anybody, people like Judy Widener got appointed,” Coash tells Nebraska Radio Network. “Now the court has a different option and I think that’s going to go a long ways to protecting vulnerable people.”
Coash says that courts had to rely on volunteers previously, because they had no options if family and friends weren’t available and no lawyer stepped forward to volunteer.
“First choice will continue to be friends and family, volunteer lawyers and when there’s nobody else now the court can look to this office and say, we need a competent person that we can make sure is doing a good job appointed to be this person’s guardian or conservator,” according to Coash.
Coash says he reviewed how other states handled public guardianship for guidance in drafting the legislation. Some states use their version of the Department of Health and Humans Services. Others run the office through the counties. Coash preferred the model used in 14 states, which ran the office through the courts.
Read story on state audit by clicking here.