BuzzFeed News has scoured hundreds of thousands of court documents, obtained confidential mental health filings and financial records, examined hundreds of guardianship cases, gathered exclusive data from extensive public records requests, conducted hundreds of interviews, and carried out a detailed review of guardianship laws in all 50 states. Our investigation reveals an opaque, overgrown, and malfunctioning system wielding vast and frightening power in the dark.
People under guardianship — commonly referred to as wards — have been locked up and isolated from their families and friends, with guardians obtaining restraining orders to keep loved ones at bay.
Other wards say they have been trapped under the guardianship of controlling relatives who strangled their ability to have social or romantic relationships, choose where they live, or express their true gender identity.
No comprehensive data exists on the guardianship system, and courts in many states keep case documents under seal, making it impossible to say for sure how many people are under its control. Estimates have put the number of adult guardianship cases at more than one million — a figure that experts say is rising.
Public guardianships for people who have little or no money form a significant part of the industry. Across America, young people in group homes, specialist schools, or foster placements have been pushed straight into guardianships as soon as they turn 18.
Parents of children with disabilities turning 18 are often told by doctors, teachers, or lawyers that they will lose any say in their care unless they get a guardianship. What they don’t know is that, as soon as they’re in the system, the judge can push the parents aside and appoint a professional — even a stranger — in their place.
Advocates say there are clear fixes that could make the guardianship system fairer: more federal oversight, better data collection, stronger training for court clerks, higher education standards for guardians, caps on the number of wards someone can have under their care, mandatory legal representation for prospective wards, a ban on holding guardianship hearings without notifying the allegedly incapacitated person, increased use of alternatives to guardianship, and more effective checks on conflicts of interest among lawyers and expert witnesses.
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