Grand jury finds Santa Clara County conservators low on morale
A grand jury report found the Santa Clara County Public Administrator Guardian Conservator Office needs to improve communication. File photo.

Those assigned by the court to manage the affairs of some of Santa Clara County’s most vulnerable are overworked, suffering from low morale and could benefit from better workplace communication, according to a grand jury report.

The findings are part of the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury’s review of conservatorships, or guardians appointed by the Superior Court to manage the financial affairs and day-to-day life of adults who have mental limitations and are unable to care for themselves.

The civil grand jury investigated the Public Administrator Guardian Conservator Office, or PAGC, the agency responsible for the county’s conservatorships. It found the office is doing “admirable work,” but urged more communication between conservators and administrators.

The grand jury interviewed 29 managers and county staff earlier this year and made three site visits to the conservator’s office. It found the department experienced a high turnover rate and low morale, and that employees have been overworked due to understaffing.

According to the report issued in September, there are six administrator positions in the conservator office’s estate administration group, but two positions have been vacant for more than six months. That has forced administrators to take up to 75 cases, rather than a typical load of around 50.

“The deputies, administrators, and their assistants have a difficult job — they must earn the trust of prospective conservatees who are often confused and frightened due to mental illness or dementia,” read the report. “They work long hours under difficult conditions with insufficient encouragement, but they persevere and provide an important service to some of the most vulnerable adults of Santa Clara County.”

The Public Administrator Guardian Conservator Office was responsible for managing more than 1,400 cases in November 2019 with the majority of clients aged 60 and over, according to the report. It has 76 people on staff, according to its own 2020 internal report.

Staff are county workers with backgrounds in social services or social work or certified workers with similar credentials who are given the authority to make legal and financial decisions for the adult, known as the conservatee.

“It can be very emotional at times,” said Scarlet Hughes, executive director of the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians, Public Conservators. “You have to do things that you know are in your client’s best interest like take their car away because it’s too dangerous for them to drive anymore. But you also recognize when you’re having to do that, how devastating it is for that client to lose that independence. But you have to do it to protect them.”

In response to the findings, the jury issued a corresponding amount of recommendations. Among them included monthly staff meetings, more performance reviews and developing a wellness and retention plan for staff by 2021 to boost morale, hiring at least two more case managers and improving the staff’s case management software to better organize financial data and appointment slots for conservatees.

It also recommended using a financial advisor to help handle conservatees’ investments — a recommendation the PAGC “partially agreed” with due to concerns over undue risk, according to a memo.

According to Patty Irwin, manager of communications for the county’s Social Services Agency, the conservator’s office already is looking at steps it can take to improve rapport among staff and boost spirits in the workplace.

“A lot of things that we’ve been doing have gone toward improving employee engagement and satisfaction,” Irwin said. “Based on our own climate and culture survey, this has been improving.”

Still, concerns have been raised by employees. One employee filed a letter to the Board of Supervisors before its Nov. 17 meeting where the board received the grand jury’s findings.

The employee, Michael O’Connor, alleged inconsistencies with six of the report’s findings, including at least one that “does not match the law.” O’Connor also alleges rifts between groups in the PAGC are too deep to be solved by better communication.

“All efforts by staff to assist have been stopped and stymied by managers who lack understanding of the position, and public guardians (sic) who are hands-off and not involved with our work,” read O’Connor’s statement. “The findings and responses are inadequate and are only the beginning of the issues. If you don’t resolve them, the remainder will be addressed through litigation.”

The civil grand jury, a group of Santa Clara County residents chosen from a pool of applicants by the Superior Court and previous grand jury members, is responsible for examining the administration of county services, hearing complaints from county officials and serving as a financial watchdog for public funds, among other duties. It generally releases reports on its findings several times a year. Due to a confidentiality agreement, the civil grand jury could not comment on the report.

“These recommendations will help make PAGC not only work more effectively but also help lift the morale of staff,” stated the grand jury report. “Staff and management are doing excellent work, and it is crucial to foster a healthy and positive work environment.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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