Friday, February 13, 2015

Benjamin J. Marrison commentary: Project highlights newspaper’s commitment

Benjamin J. Marrison commentary: Project highlights newspaper’s commitment

This is the 5,571st Dispatch I’ve been a part of.
And it’s one of my favorites.
It ranks so highly because today’s edition launches a series reporting the findings of a year-long investigation into how the probate courts in our state work, and how they too often fail some of the people they are assigned to protect — the elderly, mentally disabled and young.
It will be one of the investigations I’ll remember after I retire someday because it represents what I love about journalism and why I became a professional journalist: to watch out for your interests.
You might look at the Page One headlines and think, “I don’t need a guardian. These stories don’t affect me.”
You might be right today, but ponder this: Will you be right tomorrow? Or could one of your loved ones end up with a court-appointed guardian? More than 65,000 Ohioans have guardians, and thousands more of us are expected to join their ranks as baby boomers age.
It’s a good bet that most people whose lives are controlled by guardians probably never thought that a judge would assign someone to make decisions for them: how and where they receive health care, where they live and how their money is spent.
Probate courts have enormous power. Most people
don’t understand how they work, and few can fathom the depths of the problems within the guardianship system they administer or the ramifications of those problems.
We began investigating after hearing complaints from people who thought the system was out of control. Four reporters pored over thousands of documents before conducting interviews and realizing the magnitude of the problems.
Told of our findings, Franklin County Probate Judge Robert G. Montgomery, the state attorney general and the Franklin County prosecutor launched investigations — before we printed the first word. That doesn’t happen often.
“I think people who hear this will be absolutely shocked, as I was,” said Attorney General Mike DeWine. “I think what’s going to strike people is the inconsistency — the lack of any kind of standards. Some judges are doing a great job, and some judges are not doing a great job. I think the average Ohioan will be surprised to find out that ... the county they live in will determine how well supervised these guardianships are.”
The results are alarming. A few highlights:
• Judges place some children in the care of guardians they don’t know, and judges too often forget about the children and fail to check on them ever again.
• Some lawyers who are appointed as guardians bill the people in their care, known as wards, legal fees for doing menial tasks such as opening mail, paying utility bills or even buying and wrapping Christmas presents.
• The system is so overloaded with wards and lacking guard-
ians that some judges are dependent upon lawyers willing to take on dozens of wards.
“This is the first time anybody has ever done that kind of review of guardianships and how they work or don’t work in the state of Ohio,” said DeWine, a former county prosecutor and U.S. senator.
Investigations such as this are challenging. The reporters — Josh Jarman, Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan and Mike Wagner — spent months digging into this important but underreported area of our government.
Their work involved the review of more than 100,000 pages of records contained in 1,600 files. Our team surveyed probate-court judges in all 88 counties and heard back from 72. The reporters created several databases to help analyze the contents of the court files, specifically looking for patterns, commonalities and problems.
With the evidence in hand, the reporters met with about a dozen family members who were unaware of questionable legal bills and expenditures on behalf of their loved ones. They also talked with judges, lawyers, guardians and wards. Photographer Brooke LaValley and videographer Carrie Wise also covered the people involved.
DeWine expects the Dispatch investigation to draw a strong, swift reaction from people in positions of authority.
“The judiciary will look at it, and the legislative branch will look at it as well. And people in each county will be asking questions: ‘Could this happen to my son? My daughter? My mother or my grandmother?’ I’m sure there will be judges who are going to be shocked by this,” DeWine said. “It strikes home because every one of us, we hope, is going to get old. … Everyone can see themselves in that position.”
That’s why we did this investigation: Because it affects so many people.
As you’ll see when you open today’s “A” section, this report is remarkable for its breadth and depth. It’s among the longest we’ve published. And for as long as the stories are, they represent about two-thirds of what the reporters initially wrote. Led by Alan Miller, the managing editor for news who oversees most of our investigative efforts, the four reporters honed and refined their stories to give you the best of what they found.
As is typically the case, one challenge was shortening the stories. Dozens of examples worth noting were excluded because we understand that you have only so much time to devote to reading the news. We know you count on us to summarize information for you.
The series will run for five days. You can read the next four installments in print or online at
I promise you that it’s worth your time and attention. Projects such as this are a big investment of our time and energy. Please drop us a note and let us know what you think and whether this kind of journalism is important to you.
Benjamin J. Marrison is editor of The Dispatch.

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