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Nevada court panel calls for state guardianship overhaul

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The Nevada Supreme Court has joined calls for lawmakers to overhaul the state's troubled guardianship program that critics say victimizes some of the disabled and elderly people it was set up to help.

Appointing lawyers to represent those whose assets and affairs are being managed tops a list of recommendations announced this week by a commission that spent 15 months studying the program. Rules currently don't allow legal representation.

Other proposals included creating a "bill of rights" for wards of the program, allowing judges to enlist independent investigators and accountants to spot problems, and capping fees charged by private guardians.

A separate law would be created to cover children in the program, and mediation would be required for all contested guardianship proceedings. Guardians would be prohibited from selling assets, such as a ward's house or car, without court approval.

In a statement Thursday announcing the study's completion, Reno television reporter and commission member Terri Russell cited what she called heartbreaking stories of "abuse, fear and distrust" in the program.

The court created the commission in June 2015 to review issues raised following a series of Las Vegas Review-Journal reports about flaws and lack of oversight of the guardianship system in Las Vegas and Clark County.

Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, who headed the panel, said the accounts "served as an important reminder for all of us of the sensitivity we all must show to the issues involved in the assessment of persons in need of protection."

The commission statement said it expected the recommendations would provide a template for new laws in the 2017 Legislature.

The panel called for courts to bring a backlog of guardian cases current; for officials to seek federal funding to improve administration of the program; and for criminal investigation and prosecution of guardianship abuse cases.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt created a task force in May that he said would aim to stop legal guardians from swindling disabled and elderly clients they're hired to protect.

He issued a joint statement Friday with Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo and District Attorney Steve Wolfson in Las Vegas commending the Supreme Court commission's work.

The officials promised to review the recommendations and "continue to investigate and prosecute instances of guardianship and financial exploitation."

The panel also called for the Supreme Court to clarify rules of evidence and procedure in guardianship cases.

The guardian program handles the affairs of thousands of at-risk adults with mental or physical incapacities. Some cases are handled by publicly funded guardians. Others fall to private, third-party guardians whose work and fee structure is supposed to be monitored by a court.

"Some of the cases were just horrible to read," said Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and a former state lawmaker. The nonprofit began handling guardianship cases earlier this year.

Buckley wasn't a commission member but urged the panel to call for allowing attorneys into the guardianship process. Critics say it currently takes a family member or other outsider to report mismanagement of guardianship money and cases.

"Individuals in this situation are being stripped of their civil liberties, the right to run their life as they see fit, without anyone speaking to them or advocating on their behalf," Buckley told the Review-Journal. "There's no doubt that many of these recommendations, if enacted by the Legislature, will stop some of those abuses."

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The commission report doesn't feature victim testimony but chronicles discussions about state laws by a 27-member panel that includes judges, advocates, attorneys and public officials.

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