Greene County Public Administrator Sherri Martin and her staff serve as guardians or conservators for approximately 600 persons. (Photo: Greene County)

The Greene County public administrator helps some of the most vulnerable residents of Springfield and the surrounding towns. While the COVID-19 pandemic likely altered some of the office’s business forever, deputies are meeting some of the people they watch out for face-to-face again.

The Greene County public administrator serves as a conservator to “protectees,” usually persons deemed by judges to lack the capacity to manage their own finances. Circuit judges have the authority to award conservatorship to the public administrator, who then helps to manage the protectees’ estates and finances.

Missouri requires Public Administrators to have an in-person visit with each protectee at least once a year. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that was not possible under the public health guidelines in place to reduce the spread of the disease. Public Administrator Sherri Martin and her staff made hundreds of phone calls to protectees, or talked with them over the online teleconferencing platform Zoom. 

“We were concerned how they would be affected during the pandemic without social interactions due to facilities on lockdown and not allowing visitors or outings,” Martin said. “My deputies were in constant contact via telephone trying to keep morale up. We are very pleased with the outcome, and how well they handled the situation.”

Roles of the Greene County public administrator

The public administrator may also be appointed as the guardian of a ward of the state, a person who has been legally determined to have a mental disability that makes them incapable of making decisions for himself/herself with regard to personal affairs. Wards and protectees fall under two different legal classifications.

All of Missouri went under a stay-at-home order from Gov. Mike Parson in April 2020. Localized orders in Springfield and in Greene County put additional guidelines on persons meeting with persons from outside the household into June 2020.

Like many government offices in Greene County, the public administrator has to work through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. A staff of four social service workers had to call and check on more than 600 people, and find ways to help them while overcoming the challenge of not meeting them in person. 

With its conservatorships, the staff reviews bank accounts, investments, real estate, insurance coverage and burial plans. Social workers will also open new accounts and help protectees with Social Security, Medicaid, rent, grant applications and can sign over a weekly allowance to the protectee.

“The biggest misconception with our protectees is we just deal with the elderly,” Teresa White said. White is an administrative deputy for the public administrator. “The majority of our clients are actually people 25 to 45 years old who have mental illness, addiction problems, are in trouble with the law or are homeless.”

Why working remotely has been difficult

Greene County protectees live all over the state, not just in Greene County, adding to the logistical challenge for Martin and her staff. Some protectees are in supported living facilities or group homes. Some live in assisted or skilled living facilities. Some are in jail or mental health facilities because of behavioral issues.

White says it’s difficult to help someone when the relationship is maintained purely in a virtual environment, and she worries about the people who don’t answer calls, but there are some positive stories that have come out of the worldwide pandemic. Two people were released from their guardianships after they learned to adapt to life that requires less supervision. One of them, a man, was given a financial allowance, learned how to manage his money, and continued to take his medication as prescribed. A doctor then reviewed his case, and found the man no longer needed help from the county government.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wane, guardians and conservators will gradually begin to see more and more of their clients face-to-face, in accordance with state law.

White said there is more to her job than crunching numbers. Sometimes, it’s about helping protected people build a life for themselves.

“Sometimes it takes tough love. It’s like being a mother. You have to help manage money and life. They learn responsibility and budgeting. They have to meet with people, face struggles, and learn how to deal with it,” said White.

Staff members of a Greene County nursing home helped a young boy after he was hit by a car while riding a skateboard. The nursing home staff helped the boy recover with extra physical therapy and boosted his morale by sometimes giving him extra dessert.

The Greene County Building Operations staff also opened up some space to store couches for a protectee who was moving into a new apartment, but had a two-week gap between leaving one home and moving into another.

Reflecting on the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, White says some people still aren’t themselves, but the public administrator’s office is starting to see more of its protectees in person. 

“I don’t want people to think families just give up on their loved ones. Mothers often say they’ve failed their child. I tell them no, your child made those choices. It’s about people who need help, and we’re going be there for them,” White said.

The Greene County Public Administrator’s Office has 12 staff member salaries in the county’s 2022 budget. Almost all of its expenses, 94.75 percent, are salaries for staff members, adding to a total of $724,350. It has $8,400 worth of training and $22,000 in capital costs in its 2022 budget.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger