The court’s probate division, which is mandated to care for more than 2,000 elderly, mentally ill and mentally retarded residents, has repeatedly allowed its charges to be forgotten and victimized, an investigation by The Washington Post has found. Chaotic record-keeping, lax oversight and low expectations in this division of the court have created a culture in which guardians are rarely held accountable. They are often handed new work even when they have ignored their charges or let them languish in unsafe conditions.
It is a system that in practice often serves lawyers over clients. Even as the court’s lax oversight allows guardians to neglect their responsibilities, it also permits some lawyers to take unnecessary control of people’s lives.
A detailed review by The Post of 130 cases filed last year shows that judges routinely bypassed a D.C. law meant to protect individual rights in guardianship cases. In three of four instances, they appointed guardians for elderly and disabled people who were not present at the hearings where their fate was decided.
Those hearings often lasted less than 10 minutes. Judges sometimes overruled people’s wishes about who should care for them. In fewer than one of four cases was an independent expert appointed to evaluate whether a guardian was necessary, court records show.
Wayward probate lawyers are rarely punished by the District’s attorney discipline system, even when they have broken the law, violated ethical standards or failed their clients. When it does punish, the system is inconsistent and slow, giving accused lawyers so many protections that cases can drag on for as long as nine years, according to court records and interviews.
Lawyers lying, cheating, and stealing from clients? Who would believe that?…