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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 9th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 45 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 45

Family Service Agency's Ombudsman Program seeks more volunteer advocates for seniors


Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know what an ombudsman is. It’s an obscure title from European government given to citizen advocates, or an appointed person who investigates complaints of poor administration or a violation of rights.

For the Family Service Agency, the organization’s Ombudsman Program provides an important service throughout Santa Barbara County. Volunteers investigate elder facilities for possible abuse or misadministration, make suggestions, and advocate for locals in care.

The Family Service Agency’s Ombusdman Program Director Marco Quintanar (pictured left) and star volunteer Michael Leu (right) were honored with Senior Citizen Program of the Year in 2016 by the Area Agency on Aging. The Ombusdman program is in need of new volunteers to help advocate for elderly in Santa Barbara County.

The program realistically requires around 25 ombudsman volunteers, but there’s currently only six or seven available across the county, according to the Family Service Agency’s Development and Marketing Manager Marianne McCarthy. McCarthy said that a certain background can be helpful for those who are interested in becoming an ombudsman.

“An ideal volunteer is someone who’s had a career experience, you know, lawyer, retired teacher, retired health care worker,” she said. “The retired community tends to have the skill set and the experience and the desire to work with the population.”

The Agency’s Ombudsman Program includes some federal and state-level funding for positions like Ombudsman Program Manager Marco Quintanar, who trains new ombudsmen and leads the volunteer team.

There’s more than 140 elder care facilities in the county and nearly 5,000 residences that ombudsmen visit, Quintanar said, doing everything from responding to calls for help or suspicion of abuse to random drop-ins at care facilities.

“When we go into a facility we make sure the facility is clean, is safe for the resident, that there aren’t any trip hazards,” Quintanar said. “We check that they have enough food, that the residents are being treated with respect and dignity.”

Ombudsmen are advocates, Quintanar explained, so they spend time talking with residents at care facilities. They ask them how the staff treats them, if they like the food, and anything else that may be bothering them. It’s often the case that ombudsmen are the only advocates that a care facility resident has, he said.

“It’s very sad to find out that when residents, when they are placed in facilities, they don’t know they have rights,” he said. “They think that they are just placed there until the end of their life and that they can’t say anything on their behalf. What we do is, we go and visit and we’re another set of eyes and ears and speak on their behalf.”

Become an ombudsman
Information about the Family Service Agency’s Ombudsman Program is available at, (805) 922-1236, or email

Depending on what ombudsmen find during an investigation or visit, they may have to reach out to other service agencies or law enforcement, from Social Services to the District Attorney’s Office.

For six-year volunteer ombudsman Michael Leu, his professional background and decades of volunteering for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office as a reserve deputy sheriff have come in handy as an ombudsman. He’s also a retired aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo Mission, a defense consultant, and an attorney.

“When it comes to an ombudsman, you’re looking for people that can analyze and synthesize problems, communicate effectively, conduct investigations, and then communicate effectively to advocate for a position,” Leu said. “So the skill set that was across all those vocations kind of matches up with all of that.”

Leu explained that the ombudsman’s place as an “independent observer” is valuable to make sure that care facilities are acting lawfully and in the best interests of patients. Some suggestions could be to mitigate conflicts between a facility and a resident, or to make small changes that might improve conditions for patients and caretakers.

Volunteers in the program also watch out for cases of elder abuse that could be perpetrated by anybody. One instance included a person who visited a care facility and befriended a resident, eventually convincing that person to give him power of attorney. Another involved a woman who was having money leeched out of her bank account. Ombudsmen often help law enforcement by providing evidence and testimony in abuse cases, Leu explained.

“The ombudsman doesn’t have any real authority other than the right to go into facilities, the right to have contact with the residents, and the right to have—with their consent—access to the records and things you might need to solve it,” he said. “Beyond that, you make things happen by convincing people that they have to happen.”

Leu said that people who can listen, communicate, and are “problem solvers” make good ombudsmen. Quintanar said that people who have compassion, patience, and want to help those in need are shoo-ins as well.

The Family Service Agency’s Ombudsman Program includes an orientation, training, and levels of engagement, the organization’s McCarthy said. Organizers like Quintanar guide volunteers to gain experience, which Leu said helps spur interest in the program and the advocacy it allows.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in that because people are out there, they’re vulnerable, and they don’t know where to go next,” Leu said.

Managing Editor Joe Payne can be reached at

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