The Center for Public Integrity Interviews Professor Nina Kohn on Guardianship Reform

Professor Nina Kohn, a white woman with brown shoulder-length hair, wearing a black blazer over a tan sweater, with gold necklaces and earrings, smiles in front of a window. She is holding a dark blue book.

A number of high-profile cases lately, from Britney Spears to Wendy Williams, have led to growing calls for reform of financial guardianship and conservatorship systems. According to a National Council on Disability Report, there were an estimated 1.3 million active guardianship or conservatorship cases nationwide as of 2018. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the elderly and those who have experienced traumatic brain injuries are among those who are most likely to have guardians appointed. 

The Center for Public Integrity interviewed Professor Nina Kohn about her take on abuse in conservatorships, reform efforts, and how people can protect themselves. 

According to Kohn, “Historically, guardianship has been treated almost like a rite of passage for young adults with intellectual disabilities, who were assumed to be incapable of making decisions for themselves. Increasingly, today there is recognition that that’s not proper and that even individuals with substantial cognitive and intellectual disabilities can make decisions for themselves, especially with support.

Another category of people you often see this with are people with dementia who have progressive cognitive decline that’s making it harder and harder for them to manage their own affairs. And then a third primary category is individuals who are experiencing some level of mental illness or non-progressive cognitive challenge acquired later in life, and that could be through a traumatic brain injury.”

Kohn explains that the United States has seen efforts in place to try to improve guardianship since the early 1980s. Through her work, she focuses on trying to realign incentives so that it’s easier to do the right thing and harder to do the wrong thing.

“If these issues concern you, I really encourage people to reach out to their state legislature,” Kohn said. “I think we’ve seen enough problems to know that we need to fix the systems, and we need to change the incentives so that individuals aren’t stripped of their basic liberties unnecessarily. To the extent that seeing some of these horror stories can be a call to action, maybe there’s a silver lining.”