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Vulnerable adults protection: Lawmakers push for tougher background checks

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Klobuchar vulnerable adults press conference
David Vikla (far left), of Lonsdale, listens as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., talks about legislation aimed at protecting seniors from financial exploitation. The guardian who took care of Vikla's second cousin's finances for two years stole money and was later convicted of stealing from seniors. To Vikla's left are Attorney General Lori Swanson, Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo and state Rep. Debra Hilstrom.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Dunbar

Minnesota lawmakers gathered Wednesday to push legislation at both the state and federal levels aimed at protecting vulnerable adults from financial exploitation. 

More than 25,000 Minnesota residents have a court-appointed guardian or conservator to take care of their finances, and the number is expected to rise in the future as more Minnesotans enter retirement age. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., joined Attorney General Lori Swanson and other state officials at the West 7th Community Center in St. Paul to propose ways to implement tougher background checks and electronic monitoring to ensure that court-appointed guardians aren't taking advantage of seniors.  

"The last thing that they should have to worry about or that their family should have to worry about is that someone is ripping them off, that's stealing their last money, that's abusing them in some way," Klobuchar said. "It's our obligation as a society to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Klobuchar has sponsored legislation in Congress aimed at helping states beef up background checks and improve monitoring of guardians' financial decisions.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, planned to introduce a bill Thursday that would require tougher and more frequent background checks for all guardians. The checks would not only look at criminal history, but would also include whether the individual had been denied a professional license or filed for bankruptcy.

The legislation would have made it impossible for one Minnesota guardian to handle several seniors' financial affairs, Swanson said. Terri Hauge was convicted last year of several felonies for financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Hauge had her license to practice law suspended in 1995 for lying to clients, but was able to continue being a guardian, Swanson said. 

"You are literally caring for someone who can't care for themselves, and it's stunning that a suspended lawyer could become a guardian," she said.

Hauge had handled Helen Vikla's finances for two years. Vikla's second cousin, David Vikla of Lonsdale, said his family didn't realize what was really happening until Helen died. 

"[Hauge] initially said she would be providing financial records and things to us, which we never saw, and she did so many financial maneuvers that you couldn't sort financial records out once she turned some in," he said. 

Vikla said he realized something was wrong when he ordered a new propane tank for the mobile home his second cousin had owned and the gas station told him the bill for the last tank hadn't been paid. 

Several seniors who had come from an exercise class at the community center listened to Vikla's story, and he told them to consider appointing a family member first.

"If you have a trusted relative to take over the guardianship, that would really be the best probably," he said. 

But Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said two-thirds of guardian abuse cases involve family members. Some of those family members likely would not be eligible to be guardians under the proposed legislation.

"This legislation, with the help of the federal legislation, certainly will help courts make those decisions to screen out those people who potentially could do the worst harm that we've seen in a prosecutor's office," Palumbo said.