By KYLE DAVIDSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s Elder Abuse Task Force may begin working with law students in a developing effort to ensure fair treatment for elders in probate court.
The task force’s main goal is to tackle less-recognized issues including physical and emotional abuse, financial exploitation and neglect of elders. Attorney Gen. Dana Nessel established it with support from the state Supreme Court and Legislature. As one of its goals for this year, the task force is looking to create a volunteer program of court watchers to monitor cases.
The program would place volunteers in hearings concerning petitions for guardianship and conservatorship. Such cases determine whether parties are fit to look after an adult ward’s health care and other needs and their capability to handle the ward’s finances.
“Basically, we’re trying to make sure that probate judges are treating everyone fairly and that they’re giving everyone a chance to say their piece in courts,” said Mark Hornbeck, the associate director for communications of AARP Michigan, one of the task force’s member organizations.
Hornbeck said the task force is working on a form that court watchers could use to record their observations about the hearings, which would then be submitted to the attorney general’s office for review to determine if any actions need to be taken.
Rather than asking court watchers to make judgments about what they observed, Hornbeck said the forms would act as a snapshot of courtroom events.
Court watchers would check that all interested parties were given a chance to speak, note if the ward was present or represented by counsel and see if there were any noticeable language barriers that were unaddressed or any other signs of concern.
Potential participants would include law school students and volunteers from AARP and other organizations.
They would be trained, but specifics concerning the training curriculum are still in development.
While the program would be a first for Michigan probate courts, it wouldn’t be the first of its kind in the state.
In 2004, Renee Beeker of Milford founded the National Family Court Watch Project as a way to collect data on problems with family courts.
“There were a lot of complaints, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot anybody could do,” Beeker said.
The initial program followed court cases in Michigan, California, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, according to the project’s website.
Beeker trained volunteers and created a seven-page instrument for gathering data in the courts. Early volunteers were paraprofessionals with no prior experience in family courts, and it later expanded through work with university intern programs.
Despite that project’s success, Beeker said the biggest challenges with continuing volunteer court watch programs are maintaining volunteers and funding.
“This is a huge job — there’s nothing little about this work. Anybody who is trying to put together a program finds out that there’s more to it than meets the eye,” she said.
Screening volunteers is another concern for court watcher programs.
AARP’s Hornbeck said, “We don’t want people with an ax to grind sitting there, keeping tabs on judges that they may have a case in front of or have some past decision that they’re angry about. We’re not interested in getting those folks in the court watchers program, so there will be some vetting involved.”
Beeker’s program took similar precautions and also asked student volunteers to write a first-impression paper about family courts to determine which applicants may hold a bias.
Despite similarities between the two programs, Beeker expressed concerns about the lack of involvement of everyday people with personal experience in these matters.
“Those involved who are professionals have their view from their professional standpoint, but they haven’t lived it necessarily,” she said.
The COVID-19 epidemic has placed development of the probate court watchers program on hold, but the attorney general’s office says the task force plans to issue another newsletter soon detailing the task force’s progress. It will be available on the attorney general’s website under the Elder Abuse Task Force initiative.