We spent a year reporting and writing “Maine’s Part-Time Court” to understand the lives and death of residents in probate court.
Maine’s 16 independent, county-run probate courts are not a part of the state judicial branch. The probate courts are run by part-time, elected judges responsible for monitoring the well-being and financial futures of adults and children under guardianship and conservatorship, as well as the estates of the deceased.
Our interest in the probate courts stemmed from two observations.
One, Maine voters passed a constitutional amendment 56 years ago that would make probate judges full time, but in the five decades since then, the legislature has not completed the steps necessary to implement the will of the voters.
Two, we uncovered systemic problems with other aspects of the state’s courts and justice system, including the lack of a statewide public defenders office and the recording of nearly 1,000 confidential attorney-client phone calls in county jails.
The probate courts are a corner of the state’s judicial system that has been long overlooked despite serving thousands of Mainers.
In April, we sent a survey with 18 questions about staffing levels, the number of guardianships being overseen by the probate court, and financial reviews of conservators to each probate court. The Maine Monitor received responses from 10 probate courts, including Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Waldo, Washington and York counties.
The survey revealed that many probate courts do not know how many adults are under guardianship, or if those people are alive or dead. And many probate courts do not audit conservators or have a method to detect attempted theft.
We observed proceedings at the Cumberland County Probate Court in Portland and Kennebec County Probate Court in Augusta. We also traveled to Bangor and Brunswick to spend the day with two women who shared their stories about being under guardianship, and how the mandate for probate courts to consider a less restrictive alternative to guardianship known as “supported decision-making” affected their lives.
Our observations were supplemented with interviews with 60 people, including probate judges, registers of probate, guardians, adults under guardianship, lawyers, disability advocates, family members, state officials, legislators and a former state Supreme Court associate justice. We also spoke with fraud detection experts in Florida and Minnesota court systems. We made multiple requests to interview the leaders of Adult Protective Services in Maine and were denied each time.
To broaden our understanding of the probate courts, we reviewed hundreds of pages of online probate court records and dozens of attorney discipline decisions where the probate court was mentioned. We also read state studies about financial exploitation of adults, demographics and characteristics of adults who get exploited, and seven decades of government research on ways to overhaul the state’s probate court system.
The Monitor also made public records requests to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for data about the causes and circumstances of all adults who died under the state’s care of a public guardian between 2018 and May 2023.
We received an anonymized dataset of more than 200 people. The vast majority of deaths were deemed natural or accidental. The data revealed, however, that medical examiners had rarely done examinations of the deaths of people under public guardianship prior to 2021.
The attorney general’s office also inadvertently sent the Monitor a spreadsheet that contained the names of seven people the medical examiner’s office deemed to have died in “undetermined” ways and one death medical examiners labeled as a “homicide.”
We read 300 pages of probate court records about the eight individuals; tracked down living relatives for interviews; contacted assisted living facilities, veterans homes and private adult foster homes where the eight had died; asked police about their investigations of the deaths — often to be told there was none; and interviewed the leader of the attorney general’s Healthcare Crimes Unit.
Unlike many states, death certificates are confidential in Maine and can only be accessed by family members. The attorney general’s office asked the Monitor not to publish the eight names, but the Monitor decided to publish their full names and details about their deaths to bring public attention to the state’s secretive system responsible for the well-being of some of the state’s most vulnerable people.
In response to the Monitor’s reporting, state lawmakers held a 3½-hour public hearing on Oct. 25 about how the state’s guardianship system operates.
Officials from the probate courts, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, medical examiner’s office, attorney general’s office and Disability Rights Maine were asked to come and speak. The hearing concluded with calls from legislators for more oversight of guardians.
This series “Maine’s Part-Time Court” was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. The investigation was also made possible by support from Report For America and the Investigative Editing Corps, which allowed Alan Miller and Mike Wagner to join as project editors. Samantha Hogan has been a reporter with The Maine Monitor since June 2019.