Guardianship is overused, often unnecessarily depriving individuals with disabilities of their rights, warns a federal agency tasked with advising Congress and the president.

In a 201-page report issued this week, the National Council on Disability said that guardianship is commonly seen as a “benevolent measure” and imposed based upon assumptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities without appropriate reason.

Currently, about 1.3 million Americans are subject to guardianship. While guardianship is supposed to safeguard individuals, the report found that courts are frequently incapable of adequately monitoring these situations, potentially leaving people with disabilities vulnerable to abuse or neglect at the hands of those who are supposed to be protecting them.

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Most states require courts to consider less restrictive alternatives before turning to guardianship, the National Council on Disability said, but that rarely happens. Meanwhile, it’s uncommon for individuals to seek to have their rights restored once they have been placed under someone else’s care.

Complicating matters even further is that data on the number of guardianships — either existing or new — is hard to come by.

“NCD chose to examine this topic at depth given the implications for someone’s civil rights and liberty under guardianship — that an individual is losing the authority to make decisions regarding where to live, whether to work and where, where to travel, with whom to socialize and how to manage money and property,” said Phoebe Ball, a legislative affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability who worked on the report. “We need to explore alternatives to guardianship such as supported decision-making that enable people to avoid this civil death.”

The report recommends that the federal government take several steps to help mitigate the overreliance on guardianship.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Justice should work with the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidance to states on their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act as it relates to guardianship, the report said.

In addition, the council is urging the Justice Department to provide money to train judges on alternatives to guardianship and they want to see the government start collecting comprehensive data on the use of guardianships.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the report or its recommendations.

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