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8 Important Findings From BuzzFeed News’ Investigation Into Guardianships

Guardians who follow the rules can be very helpful for people with disabilities. But some people under guardianship have been abused, neglected, and killed.

Posted on December 29, 2021, at 11:01 a.m. ET

This is a plain language version of a story published earlier this year, adapted by Sandy Mislow of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.

BuzzFeed News did an investigation into guardianships. The reporters learned that guardianships have hurt many people with disabilities. Here are eight important facts that were found during the investigation.

1. America’s guardianship system is supposed to help protect people with disabilities who are unable to make decisions for themselves. However, more than 1 million adults are now under guardianship and are at risk of abuse, theft, and even death.

2. People under guardianship can permanently lose their right to vote, marry, start a family, decide where to live, agree to medical treatment, spend their money, look for jobs, or own property. They can also lose the right to hire a lawyer to fight for them, which means that once a guardianship is in place, it is often impossible to find freedom again.

3. Sometimes guardians are family members, but they can also be professionals with hundreds of people under their control.

4. The guardianship system is not always fair to people with disabilities. The guardians, lawyers, and experts may be paid with money belonging to the person with disabilities, even if that person doesn’t want a legal guardian. Also, the judges and lawyers often know each other and may not make fair decisions about the person with disabilities.

5. Guardians who follow the rules can be very helpful for people with disabilities. But some people under guardianship have been abused, neglected, and killed. Others have been locked up and kept away from their families and friends.

6. Some guardians take all the money from people’s bank accounts. Last year a guardian was charged with abuse and neglect of a person under her protection. Another person under guardianship was abused by his home care staff and died, and his guardian did not realize he was missing for several months after it happened.

7. There are no laws in the U.S. about guardianship, and there is no way to know exactly how many people are affected by it. BuzzFeed News believes that there could be 200,000 new guardianship cases in our country every year.

8. Judges are not supposed to put someone under guardianship without first thinking about other options, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Young people with disabilities are often put under guardianship after graduating from school. The National Council on Disability calls this the “school-to-guardianship pipeline.” Sometimes parents do not understand how bad guardianship can be until it is too late to change it.