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Hoarding and the Legal System

by Cristina Sorrentino Schmalisch, PhD, LICSW

Hoarding can have serious and even devastating consequences. Those related to housing are listed in the section on hoarding and housing. Other consequences include:
  • public health and/or fire safety problems that put the home at risk for condemnation
  • neglect or abuse of children, elders or disabled people living in the home due to accumulated possessions that threaten their safety (e.g., fire hazards, lack of clear pathways, risk of falling), impede development and care (e.g., space for children to play ordo homework, have friends visit) or permit routine care activities (e.g., a functioning kitchen, a place to eat meals, access to a shower or bathtub).
  • starving and maltreated animals due to animal hoarding
People who hoard may fail to recognize these dangers of hoarding, a characteristic that may stem from the nature of the hoarding problem itself. It is not surprising, then, that those who hoard may not feel motivated to change the conditions in the home. However, as the severity of hoarding increases, sometimes others must act to prevent harm; they can turn to the legal system for support.

The following are some situations in which the legal system becomes involved in cases of hoarding.
  • a landlord may petition the court to evict a tenant when excessive possessions or unsanitary conditions violate a lease
  • protective service workers may seek guardianship of children, disabled or older adults when they determine that hoarding constitutes abuse or neglect of these individuals
  • members of the public health or fire departments may appear before a judge for a court order to bring a property in compliance with health and safety codes or, in extreme cases, to condemn the property
  • animal welfare workers may petition the court to remove abused or neglected animals from their owner
Standard legal interventions in cases of hoarding often involve sanctions, such as evicting the individual, mandating a clean out, or removing vulnerable individuals from the home. When this happens without other intervention, the underlying disorder is not addressed and recidivism is typically high. A growing number of judges and lawyers across the country are becoming aware that the legal system can play a key role in effecting enduring change in hoarding cases with appropriate interventions that reflect understanding of hoarding as a social and personal problem, respect for the rights of individuals, and protection of those who are affected. Officers of the court are working together with social service providers to implement a more sophisticated approach that coordinates both pressure on the individual to change and support in making necessary changes. A key part of this process is creating an explicit plan that clarifies necessary changes in the home and establishes a time-line to reach mandated benchmarks. For those who decline treatment but fail to make progress, judges can mandate treatment or other human service intervention. For more information on this coordinated approach, contact the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

International OCD Foundation Hoarding Center