Date of Award

2009

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Social Work

Abstract

As our population ages there seems to be a strong current toward seeking surrogate decision-makers for individuals, who appear unable to manage their lives and make clear choices. Guardianship is the most profound course of action when determining that an older adult lacks decisional capacity. Older adults make up the majority of persons adjudicated incapacitated and, in turn, are assigned guardians (Crampton, 2004; Teaster, Schmidt, and Roberto, 2004). There is limited research about older adult guardianship, so this study is opportune because of the increased longevity of the population, with the most rapid growth among the very old, who likely will have the greatest needs for protective services (Iris, 1991).

Literature about the use of social work in the guardianship system has typically been focused around collaborating with guardians (private - family/paid guardian or public or state agency) or the court system to assist with service linkage and care planning, and protection from abuse after adjudication of incompetence (Paveza, VandeWeerd, and Berko, 2002; Veith, Blair, Leonard, Bouma, and Pazda, 1996; Sonntag, 1995; Staudt, 1985).

This qualitative dissertation research explored if social workers can serve in the role of guardian ad litem in effort to complete comprehensive clinical assessment for older adult guardianship petitions brought forth in Cook County Probate Court, Chicago, Illinois.

The research involved exploration of legal case files and interviews with both mental health and legal professionals.

Comprehensive clinical social work assessments seem necessary in older adult guardianship cases in order to provide a clearer picture of the individual, his or her needs, if any, supports, etc. It is within the social work profession's realm to complete in-home or facility-based comprehensive clinical assessments, which explore biopsychosocial components of an individual, to investigate family relationships, dynamics, and issues, to provide service linkage, psychoeducation, advocacy and support, and to partner with individuals and families to develop the least restrictive, acceptable plan of care.

Assessments will allow for the human to be seen within the mass of documents within probate court. The older adult will have a voice, which will change the process of having something "done" to him or her by the courts to collaboration and exploration of who he or she is and what are the real needs of the individual. If a person is found to be in need of a guardian, social workers can continue to explore services that would allow for a safe, tailor-made, limited guardianship. It is a social worker's role to determine less restrictive ways of helping those who are failing physically and cognitively. The addition of social work expertise in the adult guardianship court system could enhance the preservation of individual rights.

Research of this nature is paramount to our aging population in the United States as a means of trying to safeguard rights. Our society is growing older and these concerns cannot be ignored. It is important that guardianship policies and practices meet the needs of the individual, not the timeframes of the court. Providing an in-depth, comprehensive, clinical assessment allows for a well rounded picture of the respondent, his or her abilities, resources, and needs, which is essential in the adjudication process, especially when determining either a limited or plenary (full) guardianship. Having a clear understanding about the respondent will allow a judge to make an informed decision about the future of the individual, and may make a case for preservation of rights and creation of a less restrictive plan of care. Most importantly, it provides the respondent a better opportunity for due process and therapeutic jurisprudence. This research is essential to the values of social work, as social workers have an ethical obligation to advocate for and protect the self-determination of others. Fighting for justice and policy reformation is a hallmark of the profession.

The heart of the study was exploring if there is a role for comprehensive clinical social work assessments for older adult guardianship petitions and if social workers could function in the role of guardian ad litem. Salient themes include aging in America, American social structure, ageism in the United States, Families, history of adult guardianship in the United States, beneficence, personhood, rights, and ethics, Uniform Probate Code, State of Illinois Probate Act of 1975 and the Cook County Probate System, strengths and weaknesses of guardianship, due process and therapeutic jurisprudence, third party interests, limited vs. plenary guardianship, medical model, assessment for adjudication of incompetency and the Cook County Probate Court Guardian ad Litem role, and the role

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