Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship begins work

May 10, 2017

The Mississippi Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship met May 10 to begin work to develop recommendations to improve the way the courts protect children, vulnerable adults and estates.

Justice Dawn Beam

“When it comes to children and the most vulnerable among us...we have a moral duty to protect them. We have a legal duty to protect them,” said Justice Dawn Beam, co-chair of the Commission.

Hattiesburg attorney John Smallwood, co-chair of the subcommittee on guardianship for children, said, “We definitely need to make some changes with the antiquated laws. I’m ready to get started.”

One of the objectives of the Commission is to improve reporting by guardians and conservators about the well-being of the children and vulnerable adults whom they are supposed to protect and the financial and property assets they are supposed to safeguard. Mississippi Judicial College Director Randy Pierce, co-chair of the Commission, said, “Accountability is critical. We have to do things in a transparent and accountable way.”

“We need to make sure that we have a system in place that educates, holds people accountable and makes sure that the Legislature is aware of the good, the bad and the ugly,” Pierce said.

Forty-nine chancery courts currently use electronic filing and case management through the Mississippi Electronic Courts system, and more courts are expected to join MEC. Case tracking features provided in MEC will help, said Jackson elder law attorney Rick Courtney, co-chair of a subcommittee on estate guardianships.

Randy Pierce and Catherine Farris-Carter

“We need to develop procedures that are modernized and efficient for people who do this work, and maintain autonomy of vulnerable people,” Courtney said.

Chancellor Catherine Farris-Carter of Cleveland, co-chair of the adult guardianship subcommittee, said she has seen cases in which a conservatorship intended to protect financial assets actually had the effect of blocking people from enjoying benefits of their money. She suggested creating different levels of conservatorship based on people’s ability to manage their own affairs “because a person has the right to enjoy their assets.”

Judge Farris-Carter said she hopes that the Commission’s work can bring about statewide uniformity in the way guardianships and conservatorships are handled. She also believes that clearer lines need to be drawn to distinguish guardianships from conservatorships.

The Commission will work to improve interaction between Youth Courts and Chancery Courts when they are dealing with the same children, Smallwood said. Also, more work needs to be done to help relatives get children under their care enrolled in school. Before school starts each year, he sees grandparents, aunts and uncles who need help to establish guardianships so that children can enroll. “We are usually scrambling right before school,” Smallwood said.

Justice Beam said members of the Commission was chosen for their experience and knowledge. “We have a unique opportunity to make a difference in our state,” she said.

The Supreme Court created the Commission, which is expected to meet quarterly. The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 11 at 10 a.m. at the Gartin Justice Building.