Crooked caretakers: ‘Easier than you think’ to steal from the vulnerable

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids woman is under investigation again for allegedly taking thousands of dollars from the bank account of a vulnerable adult for whom she served as guardian and conservator.

Margaret Freund is already on probation after a conviction in Muskegon last year for a similar embezzlement complaint. At last check, the Kent County prosecutor is reviewing the police report involving the new allegations to determine if a criminal case can be made.

A family member of the alleged victim, who said she’s an accountant, reported finding mysterious withdrawals in the thousands of dollars when reviewing financial statements.

“Where some expenses were legitimate and other expenses were not and it popped right out,” the family member said.

Freund was removed as the alleged victim’s guardian and conservator last spring after Adult Protective Services reported that there was “significant financial exploitation.”

Freund said she has done nothing wrong, that all the money has been accounted for and that she has cooperated with the Michigan State Police investigation.

SYSTEM IS REACTIVE, NOT PROACTIVE

In the recent case involving Freund, the alleged victim was able to spot that something was wrong and call Adult Protective Services.

“It’s a rare set of circumstances, honestly, where the ward would be in a position to identify possible financial exploitation,” Scott Teter, head of the Michigan Attorney General’s Financial Crimes Division, said.

That’s because in order for a court to appoint a guardian or conservator, it has to declare people are no longer able to take care of themselves and their property, making them wards of the court. The probate judge then appoints a guardian to take care of the ward’s general needs and a conservator to handle finances. Sometimes, one person takes both those roles, giving the guardian control over personal and financial decisions.

Teter said it’s “easier than you think” for rogue guardians and conservators to steal from wards.

He said spotting exploitation is often left up to family members, but noted that “most families don’t have the resources to do that.”

The system, he said, is set up to respond to complaints, not search for evidence of exploitation.

FLAWS IN THE LAW

The Michigan Legislature tried to create some safeguards, but there are holes in the law that can let abuse slip through.

For example, conservators have to file an annual financial report, but guardians don’t.

Additionally, the financial report itself doesn’t require any receipts or backup documentation to account for the money.

“It’s basically just a State Court Administrator document that says, ‘This is where it went,'” Teter said.

The system was set up expecting judges would check the financial reports, but it doesn’t look like that always happens.

“We’ve had complaints in cases where I’ve looked back and it was pretty clear the judge has not reviewed them in detail,” Teter said. “I’ve seen other times where judges have said, ‘I noticed an irregularity'” and took action.

Another problem: Right now, anybody can be a guardian or conservator.

“You could be stocking … at Walmart yesterday — no offense to those folks — but today you could be a guardian if the judge appoints you,” Teter said. “That’s it. There’s no training required. There’s no certification. There’s nothing.”

FIXES PROPOSED

Teter is part of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Elder Abuse Task Force, which is writing changes it wants the Legislature to adopt to fill the holes in the system.

The task force wants guardians as well as conservators to file annual financial reports and include documentation of any expense over $1,000. It wants to require training, certification and background checks for guardians and conservators.

Bills are expected to be introduced soon in the Legislature and Teter said the recommendations have bipartisan support.

Teter said being a guardian and conservator is “very difficult” and that there are a lot of people who “do a really good job.” But he thinks the system needs repair to weed out crooks who could take advantage of the vulnerable people for whom they are responsible.

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