New Jersey's judiciary has found an innovative way to have another set of eyes looking over the shoulders of the state's legal guardians.

Last week, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced a new program in which volunteers will act as watchdogs, looking for evidence of theft or abuse by court-appointed guardians.

Tens of thousands of disabled and elderly state residents are dependent on guardians who manage their finances, their housing and their health care. In recent years, the number of new guardianship cases has been growing rapidly, and that trend is only expected to increase.

Rabner said that most legal guardians - many of whom are related to the incapacitated people in their charge - do a responsible job, but there have been a number of disturbing cases recently of guardians exploiting people.

Abuse by guardians is a particularly heinous crime, in which people who have promised to protect and care for the most vulnerable members of society prey on them instead.

In Ocean County, which has a large population of seniors, a minister was charged in 2008 with stealing $200,000 from 19 residents. And in 2004, an Ocean County attorney stole $2.6 million from 56 residents. In 2011, another attorney was charged with stealing $800,000 from 60 residents of Monmouth and Ocean counties. These cases may only be the high-profile tip of a much larger problem.

New Jersey is the second state to create a Volunteer Guardianship Monitoring Program, in which people are trained to read the annual reports guardians must file with county surrogates. Those reports are supposed to detail expenses, financial status and general well-being of their charges. The volunteers will use a newly created database that follows each guardianship and keeps track of missing or incomplete reports. They will look for anything out of the ordinary that might indicate mismanagement.

The program is already operating in Hunterdon County. It is expected to be operational throughout the state by November. The state chapter of the AARP says it will take a lead role in recruiting volunteers. People interested in volunteering can find information at njcourts.com or by calling 855-406-1262.

Unfortunately, the need for such a program points to a sad reality:

While the state has long required that guardians file annual reports, apparently those reports are not always being read.

The judiciary deserves praise for developing a way to remedy this situation and doing it without burdening limited government resources.