Financial stress, court cases not stopping guardians from doing important work in North Dakota, agencies say
"On the whole, guardians are doing work after meeting rigorous requirements and standards and are answerable not just to those agencies that certify and accredit, but to each other as well," said Margot Haut, president of the Guardianship Association of North Dakota and director of Gaurdian Angels Inc., a guardianship and conservatorship service in Jamestown.
JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Professionals who provide guardianship services in North Dakota say even though agencies are under financial stress and at least one company was successfully sued for fraudulent conduct, many guardians remain dedicated to protecting the interests of the most vulnerable.
"On the whole, guardians are doing work after meeting rigorous requirements and standards and are answerable not just to those agencies that certify and accredit, but to each other as well," said Margot Haut, president of the Guardianship Association of North Dakota and director of Guardian Angels Inc., a guardianship and conservatorship service in Jamestown.
Guardian Angels has a staff of seven, five of whom are certified guardians, according to Haut, who added that the Guardianship Association of North Dakota includes about 50 individuals, some of whom are family members of those they serve while others work through guardianship agencies.
About 23 of the 50 guardians who are members of the association work through Catholic Family Charities North Dakota, which has two separate programs, one for adults with intellectual disabilities and another that services individuals with mental health issues, the elderly and individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Other corporate guardianship agencies that are members of the Guardianship Association of North Dakota include Guardian Protective Services, Lighthouse Associates, Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, Opportunity Foundation, Family Advocacy Services and Veronica Miller, a professional guardian.
With a staff of seven, two of whom are nationally certified guardians, Guardian Protective Services provides a number of financial services for its clients, according to Karissa Azure, finance director at the agency
"We handle anything from selling property to managing bank accounts," Azure said.
When it comes to handling real estate, Azure said Guardian Protective Services always involves people from outside the agency, including attorneys, to help establish a fair value for a property to determine, for example, whether land is being rented for the right price.
Donna Byzewski, director of the guardianship division/intellectual disabilities of Catholic Charities North Dakota, echoed Azure's sentiments.
"We have to look beyond our entities to provide services," Byzewski said.
The ardor with which Haut, Azure and Byzewski stress the professionalism of North Dakota guardians comes in the wake of an $800,000 civil judgment in a lawsuit a North Dakota family filed against DKK Guardianship and Conservatorship Services, a Jamestown-based agency founded by Delyte Koropatnicki.
In that case, Lana Hylden of Park River filed a suit in 2018 in state court claiming DKK Guardianship and Conservatorship Services, as well as Koropatnicki and her husband, Tim, mishandled the administration of a trust established by Hylden's mother, the late Janice Hofmann.
The suit also claimed the couple charged dubious fees to the trust that they did nothing to earn.
In November 2021, state District Judge Tristan Van de Streek ruled "there were serious improprieties by defendants which not only bolster the conclusion that they committed a breach of trust, but also behaved fraudulently."
According to court records, the total dollar amount the court deemed defendants were found responsible for in the civil case was more than $843,000.
As the case was making its way through an appeal, the parties came to an agreement in early July that put the case to rest.
It is not clear from court records how much Hylden ultimately may have received in the case, though one document filed with the court indicates $45,000 that was seized by the Stutsman County Sheriff's Office was to be released to her.
In addition to the civil case in state court, federal court records show the Koropatnickis were convicted in 2015 of charges relating to the misuse of a client's electronic benefit transfer card.
After the Koropatnickis were charged in federal court in 2014, state judges removed DKK Guardianship and Conservatorship Services from a number of guardianship cases, but because of a shortage of private guardianship services, many cases were given back to DKK, according to Sally Holewa, North Dakota state court administrator.
Holewa has said that regardless of how the civil case against the Koropatnickis and DKK was resolved, it was likely judges will continue to allow the company to handle guardianship cases, simply because there are no alternatives.
Delyte Koropatnicki has said neither she nor her husband would comment on the court cases, but she confirmed there is a shortage of businesses willing to take on guardianship cases in North Dakota, and filling that need is the aim of the business she founded and co-owns.
Cynthia Feland, a state district court judge who is also the chair of a guardianship work group that has explored ways the state of North Dakota might bolster resources for guardianship services, has strongly advocated for creating an independent state office to address guardianship needs.
In testimony before lawmakers, Feland stated: "In the direst of situations, professional guardians have stepped up and agreed to take on the case without being provided any additional compensation."
Azure said such situations are not unusual for Guardian Protective Services, the agency she serves.
Need outpaces funding
In the case of low-income clients, Azure said Guardian Protective Services receives about $300 a month from state funds to manage everything for the individual, from personal finances to health care.
She said in complicated cases, if the agency were to charge its regular hourly rates, the cost could be $2,000 to $4,000 a month, "and we only get $300."
If a vulnerable person ends up in a hospital or other facility and no one can be found to make important decisions for them, costs to those facilities can also balloon quickly, according to Haut.
She said in one case, a 90-year-old man was admitted to a nursing home 100 miles from his home because of head trauma that did not allow him to vocalize his needs.
Because of the man's inability to communicate, Haut said, the facility involved was duty-bound to take all life-sustaining measures whenever a medical issue arose.
"In an emergency appointment, we were able to assist in addressing these (life or death) decisions," Haut said, referring to Guardian Angels, the agency she heads.
In that particular case, she added, Guardian Angels was able to transition the individual to a skilled-care facility where he continues to reside.
According to Haut, the civil case involving DKK is an anomaly when it comes to guardianship services in North Dakota, and she noted the business is not a member of the Guardianship Association of North Dakota.
And while she and others in the industry feel the idea of an independent state agency to oversee guardianship services has merit, they say the more pressing issue is the need for more dollars.
"It's the funding sources that are lacking. We need funds to move forward to meet the need of providing guardianship services," Haut said.
Byzewski agreed, noting funding for a commission would be expensive at a time when funding is needed "to directly serve those vulnerable adults who have no money."