Guardians of the vulnerable

EVERETT – John Baker thumbed through a court file looking for information about a child who had been severely disabled in a car accident and had received a substantial insurance settlement.

He was interested in who was responsible for the child’s care and who was overseeing the money.

Dan Bates / The Herald

A small office in the Snohomish County Courthouse is a hub of activity Tuesday morning as Guardian Management Program volunteers check on vulnerable people. From left are Pat Pierce, Al Setzer, John Baker, Mary Kennedy and Sue Haffie.

Al Setzer was on the telephone, politely explaining to a man that the court required him to file periodic reports about the well-being and financial situation of an elderly woman who was not capable of managing her own affairs.

Both are volunteer researchers who work on behalf of the most vulnerable people in the community – injured children, the elderly and those with severe mental disabilities.

Baker and Setzer are among about six volunteers who work with Snohomish County Superior Court’s Guardian Monitoring Program. The 5-year-old volunteer organization provides a service that the court can’t afford.

When wards of the court are incapable of making decisions because of their young age or mental state, the court appoints a guardian to manage their affairs.

Guardians are required to make periodic reports to the court about the status of the wards and the money being used for their care. The money may come from an insurance settlement or award, from Social Security or from an estate.

If the required reports don’t reach the court, or if it appears that a court-appointed guardian may not be acting in the best interest of the ward, red flags fly.

“It’s an essential function of the bench to assure that the funds – for people who can’t check it themselves – are properly expended for their housing and medical care,” said Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne, the court’s presiding judge.

Guardian Monitoring Program volunteers “are the watchdogs for the most vulnerable people in society.”

The program started in early 2000 under the direction of retired Judge Robert Bibb of Everett with the help of a $5,000 grant from the American Association of Retired Persons.

Its primary function is to urge court-appointed guardians to file reports with the court, sometimes annually but at least once every three years. Nearly 1,200 delinquent guardians have been contacted by researchers in the last five years, Bibb said.

In many cases, guardians are relatives of the ward who don’t understand the legal requirements. Bibb’s group, which maintains an office in the courthouse, has a manual to help guardians, as well as forms to ease the reporting process.

A few cases are many years old, and at times it’s been difficult to track down a guardian, who may have moved to another state or died, Bibb said. Retired Everett police officer Dan Anderson helps track them down.

Bibb’s group reports the findings to the court. In some cases, the group has uncovered potential fraud.

For example, a former Boeing Co. engineer apparently withdrew insurance settlement money meant for his injured child to pay for his own bankruptcy, then moved to another state. Bibb said a lawsuit is pending in that case.

When questions arise about the level of care a ward is getting or how the money is being spent, other volunteers may be sent for a visit, Bibb said. However, only about 50 home visits have been made in the five years of the program.

Until the program’s inception, there was no guarantee that incapacitated people were being cared for adequately. The chances are better now with Bibb’s program.

“We don’t have the funds to do that on our own,” Wynne said. “They just do a tremendous job for us.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or

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