TRENTON — New Jersey courts hope to offer more protections to incapacitated residents whose finances and medical decisions are managed by court-appointed guardians by assigning volunteers to review the caretakers’ actions.

Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner announced the new program Wednesday, saying more oversight of legal guardians is needed while acknowledging that the Judiciary can’t afford to hire enough staff to do the job.

“Our Guardianship Monitoring Program is a volunteer initiative that grows out of the need to ensure that friends, neighbors and family members who are incapacitated are treated with the dignity and integrity they deserve,” Rabner said in a conference call with reporters.

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Legal guardians are empowered by the courts to make decisions about investments, budgets, housing and medical care for a person who, because of illness or disability, cannot make those decisions themselves. The courts appointed 2,400 guardians in New Jersey last year and 3,900 over the two-year period ending in June 2008. The state’s total number of legal guardians, whose appointments can last years, is unknown.

Concern over the well-being of elderly and disabled residents who have been assigned legal guardians stems from an internal audit that revealed little oversight of guardians’ decisions. While the vast majority of guardians are caring and responsible, that’s not always the case, Rabner said.

For example, one attorney guardian stole $2.6 million from 56 clients whose finances he was assigned to manage. In another case, a minister guardian stole $200,000 from 19 incapacitated people.

The courts decided to implement the program now because as the population ages, more legal guardians will be needed. The program is starting in three counties — Hunterdon, Passaic and Mercer — and is expected to run statewide by November.

Two other states, Delaware and Utah, have statewide guardian monitoring programs in place, as do specific counties in other states.

The courts are seeking volunteers to spend a couple hours a week reviewing guardian files and annual written reports that legal guardians are required to file, but many don’t. They’d be looking for red flags such as missing reports, budgeting inconsistencies or unaccounted-for funds. Court staff would handle all follow-up with the guardians.

Volunteers will undergo the same background check required of other Judiciary volunteers and will receive training.

The Judiciary has also developed a statewide database to track guardianships and will work with county surrogate offices to implement the program.

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