Governor signs GAP Act to protect children and vulnerable adults

            Gov. Phil Bryant on Wednesday, May 29, signed the Mississippi Guardianship and Conservatorship Act, which will provider stronger protections for children and  vulnerable adults.

            The Governor held several bill signing ceremonies, signing the Criminal Justice Reform Act, the School Safety Act of 2019 and others.

            “The purpose is to protect the most vulnerable,” said Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam,  co-chair of the Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship.

            “It has been a long time coming,” Gov. Bryant said before he ceremonially signed the bill. He officially signed the legislation into law on April 16. The changes will go into effect Jan. 1,  2020.

            Mississippi’s laws governing guardianships and conservatorships had not been substantially changed in more than 30 years. The old laws lacked provisions for oversight, monitoring and accountability, and there had been incidents of fraud and abuse of vulnerable people.  The Supreme Court on April 13, 2017, created the Mississippi Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship to develop recommendations to improve the way the courts protect children, vulnerable adults and estates.

            Senate Bill 2828, introduced by Sen. Joey Fillingane, is also known as the GAP Act, for “guard and protect.”  It is based on recommendations the Commission made after nearly two years of intensive study. The GAP Act aims to improve court processes for protecting children and vulnerable adults and their assets. The Commission made recommendations to create a clear and workable statutory framework, modern and enforceable reporting requirements, comprehensive court monitoring procedures, state driven accountability measures, protection of the ward’s fundamental rights, and transparency from all parties.

            The old statues are confusing and vague, said Chancellor Joseph Kilgore of Philadelphia, co-chair of the Commission subcommittee on estate guardianships. There is nothing in the old  statutes that tell a conservator exactly what they can or can’t do. “I truly feel that this bill makes great strides in the protection of the most vulnerable people among us,” Judge Kilgore said.

              Chancellor Catherine Farris-Carter of Cleveland, co-chair of the adult guardianship subcommittee,  has seen cases in which family members misused a ward’s resources when put in charge of a vulnerable adult’s affairs. “They absolutely waste and squander the resources.”

            Jackson elder law attorney Richard Courtney, co-chair of the subcommittee on estate guardianships, said, “For years, lawyers have struggled to deal with  outdated guardianship and conservatorship procedures. This GAP Act will systematize the procedures for accountability and oversight of children and adults under guardianships and conservatorships.”

            The new law goes beyond accounting for money and possessions of those in need of assistance, Justice Beam said. “The GAP Act places the well-being of the person on the same footing as their assets, which is huge for ensuring daily needs such as food, housing and medical care are met for vulnerable children and adults.”

            The new law also allows judges to tailor guardianship and conservatorship orders to the needs of the person, allowing vulnerable adults to maintain some independence. Justice Beam said, “Judges now have options for respecting the dignity of the person by recognizing there are varying degrees of disabilities. This allows the court to tailor the restrictions on the ward’s rights, providing protections  where needed while allowing the ward to maintain independence when possible.” Recognizing that some disabilities are temporary, the GAP Act sets out a process for ending legal restrictions when the ward recovers from an impairment.

            Chancellor  Farris-Carter said, “The thing that I am most excited about is that we finally have a process in place wherein consideration has to be given to the desires and wants of the ward. Just because they have a physical limitation doesn’t mean they have mental limitations.”

            Mississippi Electronic Courts, MEC, the electronic filing system utilized by 62 of the state’s 82 Chancery Courts, provides chancellors, court staff and clerks of court with a mechanism for monitoring and tracking guardianships and conservatorships. With the GAP Act set to go into effect in January 2020, “we will have plenty of time to train court personnel on how the court’s computer system will assist judges in overseeing the care of our citizens,” Justice Beam said.

            MEC is working to develop and implement a management information system that will automate many of the notifications for annual well-being reports and accountings required under the GAP Act. Pilot programs utilizing the management information system are underway in the Sixth Chancery and Tenth Chancery Courts. The Sixth Chancery includes Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Kemper, Neshoba and Winston counties. The Tenth Chancery is made up of Forrest, Lamar, Marion, Pearl River and Perry counties.

            Justice Beam thanked the Governor, legislators and members of the Commission for their work on the GAP Act. She also thanked the Mississippi Medical Association, the Bankers Association, AARP  and disability advocates whose help was vital to formulating this new approach.

            Randy Pierce, executive director of the Mississippi Judicial College and co-chair of the Commission, said, “This is a perfect example of how the private sector and the public sector can come together to protect the most vulnerable.”

            Members of the Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship include: Justice Dawn Beam of Sumrall  and Mississippi Judicial College Executive Director Randy Pierce of Oxford, co-chairs; Chancellor  Catherine Farris-Carter of Cleveland; Chancellor Deborah Gambrell of Hattiesburg; Chancellor Joseph Kilgore of  Philadelphia; Chancellor Lawrence Primeaux of Meridian; Chancellor George Ward of Natchez;  former Chancellor Sanford Steckler of Biloxi; Resident Jurist John Hudson of Natchez; Commissioner of Child Protection Services Jess H. Dickinson; attorney Anna Claire Steel of the Department of Child Protection Services;  attorney Richard Courtney of Jackson; attorney Gray Edmondson of Oxford; attorney Tiffany Graves of Jackson;  State Board of Education member  Johnny Franklin of Bolton; Special Assistant Attorney General Joe Hemleben;  Department of Mental Health Community Services Bureau Director Jake Hutchins; Dr. Luke Lampton of Magnolia; attorney and Mississippi Bankers Association member Nicole Lewellyn of Magee; Disability Rights Mississippi Executive Director Micah Dutro of Jackson;  attorney David Marchetti of Jackson;  Department of Mental Health Division of Children and Youth Services Director Sandra Parks; Rankin County Chancery Clerk Larry Swales; Amie Mondello of the Rankin County Chancery Clerk’s Office; former Coahoma County Chancery Clerk Ed Peacock III;  attorney John Smallwood of Hattiesburg; and attorney Bob Williford of Ridgeland. Staff members to the Commission include  attorney Whitney Griffin of Madison, counsel to the Commission; Supreme Court Central Legal Staff Attorney Gabe Goza of Brandon; and Administrative Office of Courts Youth Court Programs Director Mary Fuller of Florence.

            Senate Bill 2828 is at this link: http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2019/pdf/SB/2800-2899/SB2828SG.pdf.

           

Gov. Phil Bryant, seated, signs the GAP Act on May 29. Observing the bill signing are, left to right, Mississippi Judicial College Executive Director Randy Pierce, Oxford; Supreme Court Intern Trenton Winford, Madison; Supreme Court Central Legal Staff Attorney Gabe Goza, Brandon; Supreme Court Law Clerk Whitney Thrasher, Madison; Justice Dawn Beam, Sumrall; Guardianship and Conservatorship Counsel Whitney Griffin, Madison; Chancellor Catherine Farris-Carter, Cleveland; Disability Rights Mississippi Executive Director Micah Dutro, Jackson;  Administrative Office of Courts Youth Court Programs Director Mary Fuller, Florence; former Chancellor Sanford Steckler, Biloxi (behind Ms. Fuller); Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves; Richard Courtney, Jackson; and Chancellor Joseph Kilgore, Philadelphia.

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