FLORENCE – One day they may be taking an elderly person out to look at assisted living homes, the next they may be inventorying someone’s belongings in a home that is filled with mice and roaches.
Welcome to the world of a public fiduciary case worker.
Pinal County’s Public Fiduciary Office plays many roles in the lives of those who need their services. The office becomes involved in the life of a vulnerable adult after a court deems that he or she is no longer able to make sound decisions on their own behalf. The Fiduciary’s Office then becomes conservator and/or guardian of the individual – looking after their financial or medical care decisions, or both. The court will choose to assign the Public Fiduciary’s Office if family or friends are unwilling or unable to serve in that capacity.
“When you get down to the nuts and bolts of this job – we are protecting vulnerable adults after a court appoints us,” stated Public Fiduciary Division Director Joan Sacramento. “We could be called to assist with placement in a care home, helping someone move from one place to another, assisting in securing their property and even help paying their bills.”
Earlier this year, a Maricopa County private fiduciary firm was accused of bilking its clients by charging excessive fees for attorney costs and administrative tasks. Sacramento and her staff watched the story unfold, but insist that it should not be a problem with public fiduciaries in Arizona.
“If there is anything that has changed around our division, is that we are taking a closer look at attorney’s fees,” Sacramento said. “In the past, we have asked the courts to examine attorney fees and consider a request to lower them. But what we saw in the Maricopa County case is that many of the people harmed by the private fiduciary were middle-income clients or those with sizable incomes.”
The four nationally- and state-certified case workers on the Public Fiduciary’s staff presently oversee 220 cases. Clients are elderly, mentally incompetent or developmentally-disabled. Since Pinal County’s growth spurt from 2004-2007 and the decline of the national economy, the staff has seen a definite increase in clientele.
“Arizona is a retirement state,” Sacramento says. “People move here when they hit 65 to enjoy the weather and get away from the city. Usually the rest of their family stays back east, or wherever they come from. As these people age, they experience a drop-off in physical or mental health while most of the family is unaware of what is going on.”
Referrals can come from a variety of sources, including Adult Protective Services or the courts. A public fiduciary could step in if ordered by the court and no other person is able to manage the person’s affairs.
“We’ll gladly step away from a case if there is a trusted family member or friend who can handle things,” said Public Fiduciary’s Business Supervisor Pat Carter. “We can assist that person in preparing the petition and paperwork to obtain guardianship. If we are appointed by a judge, we will do an assessment on the person and situation. We won’t move them unless we absolutely have to. Sometimes you will go out and find people living in absolute squalor.”
If the Public Fiduciary Office is named as guardian, the first step is to inventory all personal property. A pair of case workers will go to the home with a camera and video recorder to document what the person owns. The property, along with bank accounts and vehicles are secured for the individual. Within 90 days of the inventory, a written report is submitted to the court detailing what was found.
“If we have to place a person in an assisted living home, we will have the person go through their belongings to see what they want to keep. The rest of the belongings are boxed and are sent to storage or are auctioned off with the proceeds being placed in their account,” Sacramento explained.
An account is established in the name of each client and the funds are held by the Pinal County Treasurer’s Office. A budget is created to make sure all bills are paid on time. The fiduciary only works with the money that is coming into the individual’s account. There are no county funds used to help pay for a client’s expenses.
Being placed in such a position of trust in a person’s life is not an easy task. Accountability of every penny incoming and outgoing is essential to maintain the trust placed with the Public Fiduciary’s Office. Every year, a case manager will file a report with the court detailing every transaction that has taken place in the client’s account.
Finding an appropriate assisted living or nursing home is not an easy task in Pinal County. Case managers strive to find a location that will suit a particular client in their current situation.
“With the economy and state budget cuts, it is difficult to place mentally-challenged people,” Sacramento said. “We want to give them the help they need, but it is a difficult task considering the lack of money available.”
Intake Coordinator Shellie Hills agrees.
“Sometimes clients are placed in a ‘Catch-22’ situation,” Hills said. “They need a certain level of care, but they can’t afford it because they have sufficient income to disqualify them from Arizona’s Long Term Care System. Funding cuts and the state of the economy has played a big role in denying people the care they need.”
Even with all the stress of dealing with people who are facing life-changing decisions, the job is something these case workers would never give up.
“I’ve been here for 25 years,” Hills said. “It’s rewarding, but it’s not for everyone. You help a person, you bond with them and you have a connection to them. When you learn they have passed away, you mourn their death. Sometimes at the funeral you’re the only person there for them.”
Advice from Pinal County’s Public Fiduciary:
- Let your wishes be known. Put them down in a will or other document. “We have had clients who have not expressed their wishes on paper,” said Sacramento. “Do they want to be buried or cremated? If they have pets, what do they want to do with them? What do they want to happen to their property? If someone dies and they haven’t expressed any of their wishes, we are left to guess what they wanted.”
- If you appoint a power of attorney, make sure it is someone you trust. “It’s difficult to find out that someone was ripped off by a family member before we were appointed,” Sacramento said. “Make sure the person you appoint will follow your expressed wishes if you are incapacitated. The stories we hear of elder abuse are truly frightening.”