Pleading guilty to financial fraud didn't stop Gloria Byars from supervising the finances of about 100 vulnerable people. She easily became a state-appointed financial guardian in Pennsylvania because the state has such low standards, it doesn't even require a criminal background check for those who manage the finances of people too incapacitated to take care of themselves.
If Pennsylvania's government cared enough to require a criminal background check, it would have learned that Byars pleaded guilty in 2005 to defrauding several people in Virginia in a check-cashing scam. She served about two years in federal prison.
Her conviction should have ended hopes for a career in finance — but not in Pennsylvania, where the courts unwittingly appointed her to oversee the financial survival of scores of incapacitated people. In at least three cases, it didn't work out very well.
Families of former clients told staff writer Julie Shaw a number of horror stories, including that Byars hired her husband's company to clean out the Fox Chase home of a couple in their 80s. She charged them $11,000.
She transferred a 73-year-old woman from her home in Kensington to a Delaware County nursing home where no one could speak the same languages she did — Vietnamese and Chinese. The woman became isolated and depressed.
Byars failed to pay the bills of a 79-year-old retired Philadelphia cop suffering from dementia. His Wyncote home went into foreclosure.
After learning about these irregularities, Orphans' Court judges not only removed her from these three clients but from about 100 more in Philadelphia and Montgomery and Delaware Counties.
But taking one financial guardian out of the mix is hardly enough to protect Pennsylvania's disabled and skyrocketing elderly populations from financial abuse. According to the 2010 census, there were 2.7 million people over 60 in Pennsylvania. The Department of Aging estimates their numbers will reach 3.6 million in just two years. That means Pennsylvania will be dealing with even more people suffering from age-related disabilities, including dementia, making them especially vulnerable to fraud.
The state has long known it must protect them but hasn't done much. In 2013, a rigorous study by the Philadelphia-based Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE) recommended training and monitoring financial guardians. In 2014, the state Supreme Court made similar recommendations.
Diane Menio, director of CARIE, wisely suggests the state certify guardians, using a group like the Center for Guardianship Certification. CGC requires financial training, an exam, and continuing education for guardians. Applicants have to submit to criminal background checks. CGC certifies financial guardians in several states as well as Northampton County because judges there apparently care that people under their protection are in fact protected.
It shouldn't be hard to find the center. It's in Harrisburg.
The courts or legislature can require certification for financial guardians. Or, county courts, like Northampton's, can create their own rules if they're sick of waiting for statewide leaders to do their jobs.