A group of legal advocates for seniors is calling for major changes to guardianship laws following an investigative report that found extensive flaws in the way one state handles its background checks and appointments — leaving many nursing home residents, among others, vulnerable to exploitation.

Guardians are commonly used to manage the affairs of incapacitated individuals, incuding many seniors. One study found that more than 12% of guardianship requests come from nursing homes caring for the elderly.

But in Pennsylvania — where a single guardian serving more than 100 seniors was recently charged with multiple felonies related to stealing from them — the state does not provide an attorney to help ferry those in need through the guardian selection process.

“Few legal proceedings have more impact on an individual’s fundamental rights and liberties,” a group of attorneys led by Karen C. Buck, executive director of SeniorLAW Center, wrote this week. “That’s why Pennsylvania needs a right to counsel for people facing guardianship proceedings, as well as reforms to protect the health and safety of individuals deemed incapacitated.”

In addition to providing free counsel, Buck said the state’s General Assembly should require professional guardians serving three or more clients to obtain certification, pass a criminal-background check and comply with professional and ethical standards. The legislature has failed to act on bills introduced in the last two years.

Buck pointed to a hearing Monday in which a guardian was removed from dozens of cases after failing to account for $127,607 belonging to a client. The woman died in a suburban Philadelphia nursing home in February but her estate remains in limbo.

Buck said such stories are emblematic of a “cycle of guardianship abuse that has reached crisis levels nationwide.”