The Wards of Public Guardians: Voices of the Unbefriended*

AuthorPamela B. Teaster
Date01 October 2002
Published date01 October 2002
344 Family Relations
Special Collection
The Wards of Public Guardians: Voices of the Unbefriended*
Pamela B. Teaster**
This study sought to understand the perspective of public guardianship wards (e.g., adults reduced to the legal status of a minor child),
for whom public guardians, through court authority, should act as a concerned family member regarding the wards’ decision making.
Grounded in democratic theory, four research questions guided this investigation: How satisf‌ied are the wards of public guardians?
To what extent do wards perceive that public guardians uphold the ethical values of autonomy and dignity when working on their
behalf? How are public guardians responsive to and representative of their clients? What is the nature of guardian-ward interactions?
Data from ward interviews, participant observation, case f‌iles, and agency documents were used. Qualitative analysis revealed that
wards came from a variety of backgrounds, had feelings of loneliness and fear, and did not understand or were not necessarily satisf‌ied
with the efforts of their public guardians.
Annie Scott’s room has a bulletin board that is full of pic-
tures, cards, and a certif‌icate from the Army with her hus-
band’s picture on it. Her husband died over 10 years ago,
and their only child survived only 5 days. There is also a
calendar in her room, which faces blue Appalachian moun-
tains. Pink and red balloons hang from the call button in her
room. She sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home. Her mea-
ger monthly income consists of $335 from Social Security
and a $90 Veteran’s pension. Born in 1910, Annie’s life is
anything but typical. She admitted that she was an abused
child, ‘‘I was adopted and at eight months old, my mother
throwed me away. She did.’’ She was not hesitant to show
the scar she retained from being thrown against a grate by
her mother.
Her medical diagnoses are few, only arthritis and dementia.
Annie can be cantankerous; nurses’ notes in her chart re-
vealed that she had recently slapped a nurse. She craves
attention. Annie’s public guardian is appointed guardian of
person and property. Annie does not like the facility in
which she is living, but she cannot make up her mind about
where she would prefer to move. She is quick to tell her
guardian about her need for shoes and clothes, and she asks
her if she can get her out of the nursing home. She insisted,
‘‘There are a lot of crazy people here. I try to stay away
from them.’’
She wants her freedom. She sighed, ‘‘I’d give anything in
the world if they’d let me get out of here and give me an
apartment. If they’d give me my money. I’ve been keeping
house all these years. My mind has come back. I remember
The case of Annie Scott illustrates the delicate and complex
issues at the heart of the guardianship of an adult, or the legally
appointed role of living the decisional life of another person.
Guardianship is a function of the courts and hinges on a judicial
determination of a person’s inability to make decisions regarding
*A portion of this article was presented at the 53rd Annual Scientif‌ic Meeting of the
Gerontological Society of America, Washington, DC, November 17–21, 2000, and at the
Joint Conference of the International Federation of Social Workers and the International
Association of Schools of Social Work, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, August 2, 2000. Special
thanks to Dr. Karen A. Roberto, who cheerfully and tirelessly read numerous draftsof this
**Kentucky School of Public Health and Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, 101 Sand-
ers-Brown Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40536-0230 (pteaster@
Key Words: family, law, public guardianship, wards.
(Family Relations, 2002, 51, 344–350)
his or her person, property, or both (Schmidt, 1995). Guardian-
ship is derived from the doctrine of parens patriae, or the duty
of the sovereign to care for citizens who cannot care for them-
selves. The tasks of guardianship are highly individuated, be-
cause, in order to understand the voices of the wards, one must
f‌irst understand guardianship, or the legal authority of a guardian
and his or her relationship with a ward. Although the rights that
an incapacitated person loses may be either plenary (total) or
limited, the majority of guardianships are plenary in nature
(Hommel, 1996). Thus, when the guardianship is plenary, the
ward typically loses the rights to vote, drive, change locations,
marry, control f‌inances, transfer property, and make health-care
decisions. In essence, a ward is reduced to the legal status of a
minor child.
A guardian, who may be either private (e.g., family mem-
bers, friends, attorneys, accountants, professional guardians) or
public (e.g., a not-for-prof‌it or state entity), is a surrogate deci-
sion maker appointed by a judge to serve as guardian of the
person (e.g., health care, habilitation), property (e.g., real estate,
savings), or both of a person adjudicated incapable of self-de-
termination (Schmidt, 1996). Nearly 1.5 million people are under
public or private guardianship in the United States; published
per capita f‌iling rates for the public at large ref‌lect approximately
one alleged incompetency for every 1,750 persons (Schmidt,
1996). Public guardianship occurs in a variety of models and
exists explicitly or implicitly by statutory provision in at least
42 states; it is the legal appointment and responsibility of a pub-
lic off‌icial or publicly funded entity to serve in the absence of
willing and responsible family members and friends, or when a
needy person lacks resources to employ a private guardian (Sie-
mon, Hurme, & Sabatino, 1993). Just as private guardians usu-
ally are family members, public guardians often are the only
‘‘family’’ of public guardianship wards.
An explanation of the work of the public guardians is nec-
essary here. Consistent with earlier research (Schmidt, Miller,
Bell, & New, 1981), the public guardians shouldered relatively
high caseloads for persons assuming the decisional life of an-
other person (i.e., quite different from other forms of casework).
Guardian-to-ward ratios ranged from a high of 1:45 (including
a supervisory function of three other guardians) to a low of 1:
28. This ratio is contrasted to a recent study (Teaster, Schmidt,
Abramson, & Almeida, 1999) that recommended a ratio of 1:20.
Given the numerous and diff‌icult responsibilities of the public
guardian (e.g., service provision, service monitoring, surrogate
decision maker, advocate), agencies provide little time for know-
ing ward preferences. Additionally, ongoing training for the pub-
lic guardians is little to nonexistent, and as of this writing, fund-
ing for programs has remained f‌lat for 4 years.

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