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

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

"We shop for them and get them the clothing that they need. If they want something special, we try to get that for them, too," Russell said.

For instance, one client particularly enjoyed Western cinema so his guardian bought him videos of his favorite films.

Another of Litz's clients, a young man who lives in a care facility for people with disabilities, asked her, on a recent visit, to help him repair his razor. 

"Try it on your husband to see if it works," he suggested.

The young man, too, received a blanket and coat for Christmas. His coat is embroidered with a university logo because Litz has learned during their regular visits that the man is a sports fan. 

Litz sees each of her clients in person at least once a month. In the interim, she keeps in touch with the people responsible for their day-to-day care.

"I enjoy taking the time to visit with them. I like talking to them, learning more about them. I feel it's such a neglected part of the population," Litz said.

While earning her master's degree in social work, Litz discovered that relatively few of her classmates were interested in working with seniors and people with disabilities.

But the two groups clearly need advocates because their status renders them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they often are isolated from people who could intervene on their behalf. "They're invisible," Russell said.

But once the office learns of the case of an elder who has been abused by family members or a person with disabilities who needs an advocate, the office has the legal tools to help ensure their ongoing safety and well-being.

While the work can be emotionally taxing, Russell said the guardians know their work ensures that their clients are treated with dignity. There is relatively little turnover in the office, which is the equivalent of six full-time employees and an assistant attorney general to serve the entire state.

Russell is proud of the fact, in spite of a $200,000 budget cut, the agency has managed to serve a caseload that hovers around 200 people each. Each caseworker personally oversees about 20 clients, while others are managed by contract agencies.

The most frustrating aspect of the job is not being able to find appropriate resources for a client when they need them most. "That's what wears us out," Russell said.

While each client requires a mountain of paperwork, there are times that the job simply boils down to being a comforting presence to a person who is alone in the world.

"Literally, you sit there and hold their hands. If a guardian knows a person is close to passing, they will go and sit with that person," Russell said.

Their deaths can exact a personal toll because "you get attached to the person," Russell said. But the guardians take solace in the fact that the office has worked to ensure their clients have been well cared for and they have been safe, she said.

"They have been given dignity, respect, safety and peace. That's a really good thing."

RIGHTS OF WARDS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF GUARDIANS AND CONSERVATORS

Wards have the right to:

Dress and groom themselves as they wish

Choose what they eat

Keep a personal routine

Choose their friends and associates

Keep and use personal possessions

Private time and space

Be intimate with others of their choosing

Know why decisions about them are made and appeal those decisions they disagree with

As the court to end a guardianship, appoint a different guardian or modify a guardianship

Not be sterilized

Guardians are generally responsible for:

Determining where the ward lives

Making sure the ward's basic needs are met

Making decisions about the ward's health care, rehabilitation and treatment

Keeping track and taking care of the ward's property and personal possessions

Making some financial decisions for the ward, if the ward does not have a conservator

Protecting and advocating for the ward's rights

Conservators are generally responsible for:

Using the protected person's income and financial resources to provide for the person's care, support and comfort, and to pay the person's bills and debts

Keeping track and taking care of the protected person's property and personal possessions

Investing or selling the protected person's assets and property, if this must be done to meet the person's needs

SOURCE: "A Guide to Guardian Services in Utah," Utah Department of Human Services Office of Public Guardian

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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