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The Third Branch

Guardianship initiative brings forces together to help elderly with legal issues

By Andrew Bissonnette, Executive Assistant to the Chief Justice

Andrew Bissonnette

Andrew Bissonnette

When Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson hired me as her executive assistant last fall, her number one priority for me was to help facilitate the court system’s ability to work with the elderly and other vulnerable groups in reducing abuse and in improving guardianship practice.

Guardianship issues have come to the fore nationwide due to demographic changes, including the impending “silver tsunami,” caused by the aging of the baby boomers. Any weaknesses or problems in the guardianship system will only be exacerbated as the number of cases climbs in coming years.

As part of this effort, we have joined forces with two existing groups already working on some of the issues, and have also found support from the National Guardianship Network and the State Bar of Wisconsin.

A group of registers in probate from across the state, known as Guardianship Accounting Committee (GAC), began work in 2013 after hearing presentations by District Ten Chief Judge Scott R. Needham, St. Croix County Circuit Court, and former District Court Administrator Scott Johnson. The group supports creating a mandatory guardian training module for individual or family guardians; replicating the online training and reporting system that is used in Minnesota; and enabling a more robust review of guardianship financial reports.

The State Bar of Wisconsin has very recently agreed to help create a guardian training video as envisioned by GAC.

An informal group known as the Corporate Guardian Fee Standards Committee has been meeting for the better part of a year to determine if there should be standards in place for approving corporate guardian fees. The group was started by Alice Page in the Division of Long Term Care at the state Department of Health Services and Kay Schroeder, president of the Wisconsin Guardianship Association. Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Gregory B. Gill Jr. is on this committee, but we are interested in attracting more judges to help with the project.

In November, the Chief Justice became aware of a grant opportunity from the National Guardianship Network (NGN) to support the creation of a Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) group in Wisconsin.  Ultimately, we decided not to apply for the grant. However, we have received the blessing of NGN and are eligible to receive technical assistance from NGN as needed.  The more we looked at that process of bringing together essential guardianship stakeholders, the more we felt that this would also be an appropriate vehicle for positive guardianship reform.

I have been working to build this broad-based WINGS group for the past three months. It now stands at approximately 60 people from 30 agencies. Included are a number of elder care groups such as AARP, as well as the Social Security Administration, Wisconsin Psychological Association, Wisconsin Medical Society, pertinent divisions of Wisconsin DHS, the Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long-Term Care, the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Guardianship Association, several disability rights groups, and tribal interests.

There are also interested individuals, including circuit court judges and registers in probate.  We also have several people on board who helped in the most recent rewrite of the guardianship law, as well as others, such as Guardian ad Litem Gretchen Viney, who have written articles or books on guardianship in Wisconsin.  It is a wonderful group committed to working together to identify the problems with current guardianship practice in Wisconsin and to find effective solutions to those problems.

We have a WINGS Steering Committee, which is in the process of planning a day-long WINGS organizational meeting for later this spring. It is expected that three different working groups will be created, each with its own target area. This has been, and will continue to be, a very collaborative and creative process designed to serve some of the most vulnerable people in our state. We could use a few more circuit judges in this group.  

If you would like more information or are interested in working on this effort, contact Andrew Bissonnette at (608) 261-8297 or andrew.bissonnette@wicourts.gov.

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