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Public Guardian steps in when there is no one else

Robert Porter is the new McLean County Public Guardian.
Charlie Schlenker
Robert Porter is the new McLean County public guardian.

The incoming public guardian for McLean County said the demand on his office has grown significantly in recent years. Current guardian Dan Deneen, who held the position for 18 years, passes off next month to Robert Porter, who says the guardian is critical for those who live at the margins.

A public guardian gets involved in managing the affairs of people with disabilities who have no one else in their lives, or families that do not have the time or skill set to care for their loved ones. Porter said there are more of those people than you might think. As an assistant to the guardian, Porter said he's handled perhaps 50 such cases in the last few years.

"I think in the last couple of years, probably as a result of the pandemic and the reality of budget cuts, there has been a real acute mental health crisis," said Porter.

In that time, McLean County also has boosted efforts to address behavioral health issues, and mental health in particular. Porter said he cannot say definitively that there are not more cases because of those efforts, attributing the hike to other causes.

"I suspect that the pandemic has had a major role in all of our mental health, frankly. I've seen more of it. I think the courts have had to grapple with mental health issues with increasing frequency," said Porter.

Porter applauds the effort by county government, the County Board, and in particular, chair John McIntyre, for expanding mental health services in recent years.

Porter said in many cases, he helps families access services through a temporary guardianship of someone who has had a breakdown. In other cases agencies come to him with people who have no family.

Just in the last couple months, he was involved in a case to prevent the withdrawal of life sustaining treatment from a woman, who in her own estate planning documents, stated she wanted to maintain artificial hydration and nutrition.

"The individual who was acting as her power of attorney was prepared to disregard that and end the treatment, which would have resulted in this individual's death. That was something that got on my radar because the hospital was very uncomfortable. However, without an emergency guardianship in place, the the power of attorney was legally empowered to act," said Porter.

In another case, he said a family member was actively exploiting two elderly disabled individuals to the sum of six figures.

"As a result, those individuals were not receiving care because of course their resources were being drained. One of the individuals was in the process of being removed from her long-term care facility, so it would have been particularly difficult to care for her outside of her long-term care environment and the emergency guardianship was able to stop that exploitation," said Porter.

He acknowledged the work can be taxing, but gratifying.

"I think for attorneys who work with more vulnerable populations, it can be emotionally difficult. I will say one thing about the work I do in the guardianship arena. I have yet to see a case where a guardianship proceeding has been undertaken where I felt like at the end of the day we have not advanced the disabled person's life in some meaningful way," said Porter.

Porter also praised the doggedness and determination of the current guardian, Dan Deneen, who remains in practice and will continue to help the office.

Gov. JB Pritzker appointed Porter to the post. The legislature will need to confirm the appointment to make it permanent.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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