By Encarnacion Pyle

Kim Kelly's adult son is so profoundly disabled that she must dress, feed and care for him much as she would a baby.

Born with a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, Joe has limited use of his arms and legs, can't talk and uses a wheelchair. Now 27, he requires around-the-clock care from a team of nurses and aides and is virtually "a prisoner of his body," Kelly said.

When Joe turned 18, his mother, a Hilliard resident, became his guardian to make sure he receives the care that he needs and the life that he deserves.

At the time, the Franklin County Probate Court provided only a workbook as training. Kelly, now 60, said she had to learn through trial and error.

Now, thanks to changes at the state level, all court-appointed guardians who care for adults will receive training. All guardians -- lawyers and other professionals as well as family members and caregivers -- will be required to take the training, whether they're caring for an elderly person with dementia or a young adult with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

Statewide, there's an estimated 39,000 guardians for adults who can't care for themselves. About 4,000 are in Franklin County.

"The goal is to provide uniformity and consistency to Ohio's guardianship system by providing clear guidance for best practices," said Christy Tull, director of the Ohio Supreme Court's Judicial College.

The court released the new minimum requirements for guardians in March, after years of study and a 2014 Dispatch investigation that revealed how the state's patchwork of local rules had failed some of its most vulnerable residents.

The new rules require more training, monitoring and background checks and say that guardians must meet with their wards at least every three months. Every guardian must attend a one-time, six-hour fundamentals course and three hours of continuing education every year thereafter.

The training sessions are provided free at sites throughout the state each month. One fundamentals course is for lawyers and other professionals; another, for caregivers and other "lay guardians."

To reach more people, the Supreme Court will soon start broadcasting the classes at some probate courts and community sites such as libraries. The high court also is developing online classes, which it hopes to begin offering in September.

Local probate courts will be able to offer their own training to meet the basic requirements (some already do), as will other groups that already work with guardians and receive approval from the courts.

Since June, 767 people have attended the new training. The next central Ohio classes will be offered on Aug. 27 and 28.

The classes explain how to establish a guardianship, the types of guardianship (of a person or an estate, for example), and the rules and reporting requirements. They also go over the rights of wards and how to identify their needs, particularly if they are nonverbal and can't tell their guardians what they want.

"By arming people with information, the quality of care is going to go up," said Paula Taliaferro, a social worker and an education consultant for the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging.

Taliaferro is co-teaching the courses with Derek Graham, a Columbus lawyer who learned firsthand the challenges and rewards of caring for someone with special needs after having a daughter with Down syndrome.

"To be a good guardian, you really have to have some social-work skills," he said.

Most advocates applaud the state for creating minimum standards for guardians. But some worry that caregivers often have a hard enough time sneaking away for even a few minutes to take care of their own needs, let alone leaving for six hours.

"Many of our families have been good, faithful guardians for years and haven't had any problems," said Gary Tonks, executive director of the Arc of Ohio, a disabilities-advocacy group. "I don't think training is a bad idea. I just think it's a bit of overkill."

Michael Kirkman, executive director of Disability Rights of Ohio, heard concerns that the new requirements would result in a flood of lawyers saying they no longer would take on guardianship work.

"But I haven't seen a tsunami of lawyers leaving the field," he said.

Julia Nack, one of the state's few certified master guardians and director of the volunteer guardianship program at the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging, believes the training is worth every minute.

"It's been needed so long, and it's very satisfying to see it finally developed," she said.

Franklin County Probate Judge Robert G. Montgomery says he wants to be as accommodating as he can in meeting the needs of guardians because the court needs more people willing to serve.

"All these new requirements are great and should be done, but the biggest problem we have right now is finding suitable guardians," he said. "That's why a few lawyers ended up with 300 or 400 wards."

Kelly thinks the training is invaluable for new guardians. But she worries that the new requirements were put into place just because of a few bad apples such as Paul Kormanik.

The former Columbus lawyer served as a guardian for hundreds of people and admitted in court last week to stealing from four of his wards and from taxpayers.

"We need things that make our already-difficult lives easier, not more complicated," Kelly said. "I only hope they continue making tweaks to the requirements."

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)