By Jeffrey Schweers, Orlando Sentinel January 31, 2024 at 2:19 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Time is running out on legislation aimed at further reforming the state’s much-maligned guardianship system, which is supposed to protect Florida’s most vulnerable citizens from people who aim to exploit them.
The nearly identical bills by Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, and Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, would provide more transparency and oversight of guardians and their wards to protect against fraud, abuse and death.
Yet, despite strong grass roots support and hundreds of letters to the House Civil Justice Subcommittee Chair Bill Robinson, R-Bradenton, Harris’ bill still has not been scheduled for a committee hearing with only one more week of such meetings left this session. Neither has Garcia’s.
“We have one chance left before the last meeting is scheduled, and if it’s not heard, then it’s dead this session,” said Kat Duesterhaus, legislative director for the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women. “We’re really discouraged that this bill hasn’t been heard.”
NOW supports the legislation, because it represents women and girls, and the majority of people under guardianship in Florida are women, Duesterhaus said.
But it’s also personal for her, having just gone through an embattled guardianship case involving her grandmother that lasted a year and a half.
“We should have the right to say who cares for us, and that’s not happening,” she said.
Advocates have been working with lobbyists for guardianship lawyers to make compromises both sides can live with, including patient privacy concerns and jury selection to hear some cases.
“It’s really important to get something passed that will improve transparency and improve safeguards,” Harris said. “People going through this feel a sense of urgency. They see what happened in previous cases and don’t want to let it happen to their loved ones.”
Similar legislation was filed last year by Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, but he withdrew it before the legislative session began.
All this year’s recommendations are in alignment with the statewide guardianship task force report, Duesterhaus said.
“The guardianship program is broken, and your proposed legislation takes an important step to fix it,” Pinellas County Clerk of Courts Ken Burke, chair of the task force, said in a letter to Garcia and Harris.
The task force was created in 2021 to make recommendations to improve the guardianship system, in which judges appoint professional guardians to look after the affairs of people no longer able to care for themselves.
“Better protections are desperately needed for these vulnerable wards,” Burke said.
Florida’s guardianship system has been under scrutiny for more than a decade, with advocates and their legislative allies making several reforms over the years. Past changes include disclosure of criminal background checks, giving the clerks of court authority to review assets, and creating an Office of Public and Professional Guardians.
The case of Rebecca Fierle, first reported by the Orlando Sentinel in 2019, placed the guardianship system under the microscope and led to sweeping changes in the system meant to end abuses uncovered by investigators in her case.
Fierle was accused of signing a Do Not Resuscitate order for Steven Stryker, a chronically ill Tampa man, and capping his feeding tube against his wishes, leading to this death.
Originally charged with aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly or disabled person, Fierle last year accepted a plea deal to one count of neglect of an elderly person and was sentenced to five years of probation.
In 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed several bills into law inspired by the Fierle case, including a requirement that guardians get a judge’s approval before signing a DNR and greater control over how guardians are appointed.
And in 2022, DeSantis signed a bill creating a statewide database of guardianship information, but it can only be accessed by those directly involved.
“Most guardians are good, honest people doing their job to protect their wards,” Duesterhaus said.
But safeguards are needed for the handful of bad apples lured into the field because of the millions of dollars at stake, she said. Palm Beach County alone identified $7.3 million in unsubstantiated disbursements and missing assets.
The new legislation originally required the Legislature to establish visitation rights for the family members of a minor or adult, unless there is clear evidence that it is not in the best interest of the ward. It was changed to provide visitation rights to heirs only.
It also would have required a full reevaluation every three years of the need for guardianship, including an examination by an examining committee and a hearing but that was dropped at the urging of the lobbyists for elder care lawyers.
Also removed was an option to impanel a jury to determine whether the petitioner met his or her burden to suspend a power of attorney, Duesterhaus said.
Harris remains cautious but hopeful about the bill’s eventual passage in later years but knows it will take time before full reform comes to the system.
“It’s a complex issue, and I don’t think we’ll solve it this session,” she said.