This past summer, one of my client families was successful in having –for the first time in Virginia–a microboard named guardian for their foster daughter with special needs.
A microboard is a formalized “circle of support,” a non-profit corporation consisting of a small group of individuals who assist an individual with disabilities in creating and implementing a life plan. Participants are unpaid and maintain a personal relationship with the individual, who is also a board member, though non-voting, if a guardian has been named. In some states, microboards admnister funds from Medicaid and other sources in order to hire and direct service providers. Hundreds of microboards exist in pockets across the U.S., although relatively few have been awarded guardianship status.
My clients—Becky, mom Mac, and dad Charlie—originally formed Becky’s microboard nearly a decade ago. “Expanding its role to one of guardianship is a support model we hope will be useful to others,” says Mac, “but we realize that it won’t work for everyone. It’s too soon to know what glitches will arise. At this point, we’re just excited that it’s been approved.”
Charlie explains that microboard guardians offer parents reassurance that, if something suddenly happens to them, a group of people with personal relationships to the ward is in place to give support and guidance.
In Becky’s case, each microboard member has been granted authority to act independently. So what happens if opinions differ on a course of action? “We’ve been working together for years and have never had a disagreement that we weren’t able to work through,” notes Mac.
Charlie adds, “A group offers perspective and balance. Sometimes this gets messy, but some of the best solutions in life come from discord. I’ve seen guardians who had too much control, who’ve done things to a person instead of with them, because their focus was too narrow. I see this as only positive for Becky.”
Microboards have a strong self-advocacy component, and Becky’s is no exception. “They’re a listening board for her dreams,” explains Charlie, “That’s why it’s so important for her to be a member. Few kids want to follow a path prescribed by parents. They need something broader. One of the board members is around Becky’s age, so she may see possibilities that wouldn’t occur to the rest of us.”
“Microboards are wonderful in theory,” says Kelly Thompson, who practices special needs law in Arlington, Virginia, “but they can be hard to form. In my experience, family members have had trouble finding individuals who are willing to put in the time and accept the responsibility. It’s especially difficult if they’re looking for a variety of skills.”
Mac acknowledges this challenge. “It can be tough to form these boards for people who have been living in segregated settings and are now transitioning to community living. If the individual and his or her family have ties to the community—church, neighborhood, business—it’s easier, because they’re asking people to deepen a relationship that already exists. ”
Some parents find it emotionally difficult, though, to ask others to participate, and Mac has several suggestions on how to proceed:
- Organize pot luck dinners or other gatherings to begin the conversation and see who forms emotional connections with your child. Schedule a number of these events and see who keeps returning.
- Grow the board gradually, on a one-on-one basis, around shared interests.
- Identify three or four people who seem ideal, then approach them simultaneously.
“Virginia, where I practice, doesn’t have a strong public guardianship program, there’s a long waiting list,” observes Kelly, “When older parents approach me for advice, I don’t have many options to offer them. As baby boomers age, the concept of microboard guardianship may become increasingly attractive. With its shared responsibility, it places less dependence on siblings, who may live in another part of the country or harbor resentments. It’s more personal than naming public guardians and, since the board will have had ongoing involvement with the ward, transitions are potentially smoother upon parents’ passing. “