Michelle Chaffee – Help for Those Unable to Help Themselves 4/9/18 04/10/18 11:19:18 AM
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Michelle Chaffee considers her job “an amazing privilege.”
Help for Those Unable to Help Themselves
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
The ability to make one’s own decisions and take the responsibility for them is fundamental to our way of life.
But there comes a time in some lives, hundreds if not more in Nebraska alone, where a person simply is not able to do that.
Three years ago, the Office of Public Guardianship was initiated following action taken by the Nebraska Legislature to address what had become a crisis. The office was long overdue, and, to put it mildly, they stay busy with the responsibility of seeing that those who are unable to care for themselves get the care they need.
The task of making the office work, a still evolving process, belongs to Michelle Chaffee, who formerly served as legal counsel for state DHHS, and whose own story started near Washington, D.C. Chaffee refers to herself as a “Navy brat” who was born near the nation’s capital and moved 13 times before she turned 16.
“My parents were originally from Nebraska – Alliance and Kearney – so when my Dad retired we came to Lincoln, where we had lived previously when he taught NROTC at UNL,” she recalled. Chaffee finished high school in Lincoln and did her undergraduate work there.
Her husband was still in the Army when they married. Between her husband’s Army duties and his completion of an undergraduate degree, she moved another ten times as she taught school during her twenties.
An interest in the practice of law seems to have grown out of a discussion at home. Having been raised in a military family during the 1960s with Vietnam War protests common, and living in Virginia and South Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement, there were some extremely interesting discussions at home.
“Justice, equity, effects of government policy on individuals’ lives, public service, duty to country – those were real issues happening around me growing up,” Chaffee recalled.
Her bachelor’s degree was in political science but she also had a social studies secondary education teaching degree. Despite her interest in law school, she called the move a natural choice for the first female college graduate on either side of the family tree. It seemed the goal of a law degree was not possible.
“I began to raise children and teach school,” she remembered, “until sibling rivalry reignited the interest.”
As the oldest child and the only girl, she noticed when her brother, Lincoln attorney Bruce Smith, became a law student.
“I began to consider perhaps it could be an option for me,” she said. “My brother’s success gave me the courage to face the fear of rejection and apply to law school.”
Expecting rejection she thought it best to at least give the dream a chance. It worked.
“I am, still, so appreciative of the University of Nebraska College of Law for taking a chance on a 37-year-old married woman with four sons … with very average grades and LSAT scores.
“Becoming a lawyer was not taking ‘a road less traveled.’ It initially was finding a hidden, unmarked path, but it definitely has made all the difference in my life.”
While her life is now dedicated to making a difference in the lives of hundreds of vulnerable Nebraskans, Chaffee does find time for other things. She enjoys reading, claims to be addicted to HGTV, and in the last year the family bought a mid-1970s ranch home they remodeled and are updating.
She said, sometimes with tongue firmly in check, that all helps in her work.
“The house backs to a park, so I spend a lot of time ‘deprogramming’ from job stress by staring out at nature,” Chaffee admitted. “Also, my stint of construction and house design has reinforced that I should definitely keep my day job.”
Indeed that “day job” has come with plenty of demands. The Office of Public Guardianship came about following a 2013 audit of a private contract guardian that revealed the guardian for more than 600 Nebraskans had used private and public funds that were meant for those wards for her personal use.
“As a result of the publicity and the recognition of the need for guardians for vulnerable adults, Senator [Coby] Coash introduced a bill,” Chaffee recalled. The Public Guardianship Act was passed to implement a Public Guardian in Nebraska. The office was initiated in January of 2015, making Nebraska the final state in the nation to open such an office.
Chaffee directs the statewide entity that serves as guardians and conservators for vulnerable adults after a court has determined that they are unable to make decisions for themselves and lack family or friends to address those needs.
“We also provide private guardian and conservator training for all guardians and conservators newly appointed in Nebraska,” she pointed out.
Previously the work was handled by private contractors, guardians ad litem and attorneys. That one notable public failure put an end to that.
Chaffee said the work of her office will grow, and there is research to back up that claim. She said demographics indicate families are becoming more geographically separated and that leaves fewer options for relatives to serve as guardians so her office becomes the last resort more often. The need for public guardianship is growing among young people as various forms of intellectual disability are hitting that group harder, and the ranks of the elderly continue to grow.
In Nebraska the population of those 65 years of age and older is expected to grow from 240,000 in 2010 to 400,000 by 2030 when that group will make up 24 percent of the population.
When asked if the office comes close to meeting the need, Chaffee responded: “Yes and no.”
During the past year the 264 wards served had had 657 identified categories involving complex issues. Those included cognitive impairment, mental health diagnoses, developmental disabilities, substance/alcohol abuse, medical conditions, history of criminal justice involvement and/or a history of Mental Health Board commitments.
From December 2016 through November 2017 the average hours per week per ward/protected person was 3.95 hours. There are currently 17 assistant public defenders serving the state. There is a waiting list for cases in some areas where the case load has reached the maximum allowed.
“It is very rewarding and challenging work,” Chaffee said, adding that was part of what drew her to the job. “It was an amazing opportunity to serve the most vulnerable of individuals in society; to be a part of creating a new state-wide system that could model best practices.
“It is an amazing privilege.”