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Guardianship Reform Needed

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"A Guardian must ensure that a Ward's personal and financial interests are protected while trying to include the Ward in decision making as much as possible."

A BOND OF TRUST

The bond of trust between a guardian and the person whose interest they are to protect exists not only legally but also morally. Violation of that trust by a guardian for hundreds of Nebraskans was exposed recently in a report by the State Auditor. Judith Widener, Director of Safe Haven, Inc. and the guardian for hundreds of Nebraskans, has been arrested on felony charges of embezzlement from the funds of her wards. She was released after posting a $500,000 bond.

The process of unraveling the mess created has started. The Administrative Office of the Courts of the Nebraska Judicial Branch has ordered all clerk magistrates throughout the state to begin a systematic review of every guardianship assigned to Judith Widener of Safe Haven, Inc.

The State Auditor identified 688 cases, active and inactive, with Widener as the guardian. The case review will include an examination for improprieties, whether or not monies were being handled, and the name of the person or entity requesting the appointment of Widener. Each case must be reviewed on an individual basis.

This whole incident is powerful evidence of the need for a public guardianship law in Nebraska.

The Backstory: Short version

On Monday, November 25, 2013, Mike Foley, State Auditor, released a report exposing significant problems in the management of the State Assistance to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled (AABD) program. He found the program to be “riddled with problems”.

The AABD program serves about 6,000 Nebraskans with direct cash assistance for their basic living needs and medical expenses. It is operated by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and spends approximately $15 million in State tax dollars each year.

The Auditor’s report is based on a sample of randomly selected cases. It found that in 36% of those sampled cases, DHHS was making payments that were “unreasonable or in direct violation of State law”. The Auditor’s conclusion was that “DHHS’ inadequate control procedures failed to safeguard taxpayer funds.”

The most serious issue was related to apparent financial abuse of vulnerable adults with disabilities receiving AABD payments.

Judith Widener, of Scottsbluff, Nebraska and the Director of Safe Haven, Inc., was found to have served as a guardian or conservator for 688 vulnerable individuals in need of protection across Nebraska.

The auditing team became suspicious of her activities and asked the Nebraska State Patrol to interview her. Numerous examples appeared of Widener depositing payments intended for the vulnerable adults into bank accounts she controlled, and then taking funds from those accounts for her personal use. Judith Widener confessed to the auditors, in the presence of the State Patrol, that “she knowingly misappropriated monies belonging to wards” for whom she was a guardian.

Widener was arrested and charged with a felony for embezzlement and theft of her wards’ money on November 20, 2013. She hid her alleged embezzlement through a “complex array of credit cards and over 40 bank accounts containing more than $600,000.” Those bank accounts were spread out across Nebraska.

She posted money to cover the $500,000 bond set by the County Judge and was released from jail on Tuesday, November 26, 2013.


So Now What Do I Do?

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