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Bill creates a statewide guardianship database

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Rep. Linda Chaney

Rep. Linda Chaney

The Legislature has agreed to create greater transparency in the guardianship process, a top recommendation of the Guardianship Improvement Task Force.

The House voted 117-0 on March 10 to grant final legislative approval to HB 1349 by Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Petersburg. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored the companion, SB 1710.

Chaney said the measure will create a statewide database that will pave the way for future reforms.

“This amendment establishes a guardianship database that we first heard last week,” Chaney said. “So thank you for recognizing this as a first step, and for supporting it, and I hope that you can help me take it to the next step.”

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

The measure would require the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation and the clerks of court to create a statewide database of guardian and guardianship case information by July 1, 2023.

Accessible only by judges, magistrates, court clerks and certain court personnel, the searchable database would include such things as the registration status and “substantiated” disciplinary history of professional guardians.

The measure would also require the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, by July 1, 2023, to post searchable profiles of registered professional guardians on a website.

The profiles would include such things as whether the professional guardian meets educational and bonding requirements, the number and type of substantiated complaints filed against the guardian, and any disciplinary actions imposed by the Department of Elder Affairs.

Data related to individual wards would be “deidentified” to protect their privacy.

House members from both parties praised the proposal, although some expressed a concern that it doesn’t go far enough.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and an attorney, asked why the court database won’t be accessible to the parties in a guardianship case.

Chaney said the restriction is needed to protect wards.

“The reason for that is there are times when family members have good intentions, and family members have bad intentions,” she said. “So we didn’t want them to have full access to the ward’s information, and maybe be part of a problem.”

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, noted that the database was a top priority of the taskforce, but not the only one.

“This is a good first step,” she said. “I’m hopeful that the 12 other recommendations by the taskforce [are] something that we can work on next session moving forward.”

Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said constituents have contacted her to complain about guardians who shuffle wards from nursing home to nursing home to hide them from concerned family members.

“You do have families that are good actors, and some attorneys are bad actors.,” Davis said. “The families that we’re dealing with in this program are good with this amendment, but it doesn’t go far enough for them.”

Chaney assured her colleagues that the measure will also require the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, (OPPAGA,) to use the database information to generate annual reports suggesting reforms.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park, called the measure vitally important. Despite anecdotal evidence of ward abuse, the state knows little about the scope of the problem, he said.

“For too long, issues like this don’t necessarily get as much attention as so many other issues that we have contemplated here in this chamber.”

Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, credited Pinellas County Court Clerk Ken Burke, who chaired the taskforce, for helping shape the legislation.

She said she was encouraged that freshmen lawmakers were interested in the legislation and eager to see more reforms.

“This is a heart-wrenching issue that affects real Floridians,” she said.

The Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers organized the taskforce last summer to begin addressing the problem.

It included legislators, court clerks, court system employees who work with guardianships, lawyers from the Elder Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law sections, consumer advocates, a former ward, and others.

The task force was given an open-ended mission to make recommendations for improving the system.

In addition to the database, the taskforce recommended creating a permanent legislative or state body to suggest regular updates to the law.

The task force also called for such things as barring hospitals and nursing homes from recommending a specific guardian when they file for a guardianship, including consideration of powers of attorney and advanced directives previously signed by a ward when a guardianship is set up, and improving training and education for everyone involved in the guardianship process.

“The final report of the Guardianship Improvement Task Force is the product of the many perspectives represented by its members, and I believe we accomplished what we set out to do from the start: to make recommendations for the Legislature’s consideration that will begin addressing the major issues with guardianships in our state,” Burke said at the time.

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