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Public Guardians oversee care of Utahns 'all alone in the world'

Published: Monday, Dec. 19 2011 7:11 p.m. MST

Xia Litz of the Office of Public Guardian delivers Christmas presents and visits with a ward in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To watch them interact, the two women appear to be old family friends.

Xia Litz is delivering Christmas presents to an older woman.

"This is for me?" she says, looking quizzically at a large gift bag stuffed with tissue paper, a blanket and a new winter coat.

After a little coaxing from Litz, the elderly woman gingerly delves into the bag.

"Beautiful," she says. "Me no cold. That's very good.

"Thank you. Thank you, very much."

This is a good day for the elder woman, who is a ward of the state. The younger woman is her state guardian. It's a happy occasion for her, too.

The time may come that Litz or another of her colleagues in the state Office of Public Guardian will need to give consent to a physician to carry out the elder woman's end-of-life directives. When she passes away, Litz will release her body to a funeral home. There probably won't be a funeral because the woman is alone in the world, aside from a few acquaintances.

Her husband died several years ago. "No family," she says. "No children."

Litz has a caseload of about 20 people who have different histories but also have become wards of the state.

Some are people with multiple disabilities who have outlived their parents. They are the children of "pioneering, feisty mothers" who rejected the instructions of doctors who advised them to place their disabled sons or daughters in institutions. Instead, they cared for them at home, often without outside support, said Donna Russell, director of the Office of Public Guardian.

Other wards are adults who were taken into state custody after they were physically abused, financially exploited and/or neglected by members of their own families. It is not safe or healthy for them to remain in their care.

Once they come to the attention of the Office of Public Guardian and their situation meets statutory criteria to petition the court, the office seeks a court hearing to determine whether the proposed ward is incapacitated. Proposed wards are represented by counsel to ensure their rights are protected.

If the court finds the person lacks capacity to make executive decisions, the judge appoints a conservator to oversee the person's income, property and resources and a guardian for their physical or emotional care. The conservator and guardian can be the same person.

The office first attempts to locate an appropriate family member or friend to assume the responsibility of their care. The state is the "guardian of last resort," Russell said.

"As the state, we don't want to be the guardian of everyone," she said.

Some families are separated when a parent or child becomes homeless. Often, untreated mental illness and substance abuse play a role.

One man contacted by the office was overjoyed to learn the whereabouts of his father after they had become estranged.

"He flew in from another state and took his dad home with him to take care of him," Russell said.

Other times, no one can be located. No one steps forward.

Depending on their circumstances, a person could conceivably be a ward of the state for life.

Half of the clients currently served by the Office of Public Guardian are under the age of 60. The youngest is 19 years old. The oldest ward just turned 100.

"Some are truly alone in this world as far as we can figure out," Russell said.

While the guardians' relationship with their clients is professional, the job requires a personal touch.

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