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Florida clerks working to implement guardianship database

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Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke

Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke

The Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation is hard at work creating a statewide database of guardian and guardianship case information as prescribed by the Florida Legislature last year.

The database came at the recommendation of the Guardianship Improvement Task Force to create greater transparency in the guardianship process. The legislation, HB 1349, was signed into law by Gov. DeSantis on June 28, 2022.

From its first meeting on July 21, 2021, to its last meeting on November 15, 2021, the task force studied problems in Florida’s guardianship system and made recommendations for improvement.

Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke, chair of the task force, says media interest in guardianship drove the Legislature to put the database into action.

“There was a constant barrage of news stories about problems in the guardianship arena,” Burke said. “It was evident that there were flaws in the system and we wanted to get everyone who had a stake in the process involved in the task force to find common areas we can all agree on.”

Members of the task force 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. Their goal was to make recommendations for improving the system.

Burke said the high national media interest in guardianship, specifically with the Britney Spears case, led to the Florida Legislature acting quickly on the task force’s recommendations.

“For something this complex, you definitely need a champion, and thankfully Rep. [Linda] Chaney and Sen. [Jennifer] Bradley stepped up very quickly,” Burke said.

Rep. Chaney, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Bradley, R-Fleming Island, helped guide the bill through four House and three Senate committees during the final month of the 2022 session.

Burke said the task force used “every tool in our toolbox,” to get this legislation through.

Florida courts define a guardian as a surrogate decisionmaker appointed by the court to make either personal and/or financial decisions for a minor or for an adult with mental or physical disabilities. After adjudication, the subject of the guardianship is a “ward.”

Currently, there is no way to track guardianship cases in the state and no reliable data to show how many guardians there are, how many wards they have, and how much money they control.

“We needed a way to get better data in guardianship,” Burke said. “A judge cannot answer how you can reform the guardianship system without data, and that is what the database intends to do.”

Once completed — the database can only be accessible to 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 bill called for the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation to build the database. The CCOC put out a request for proposals and finally decided to use Cloud Navigator as its vendor in late December.

Burke says the initial meetings with Cloud Navigator have been good and they are currently working to build the stakeholder data dictionary as well as working with the Department of Elder Affairs to get that department’s data fed into the new database.

The legislation passed last year also requires the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, by July 1, 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 types of substantiated complaints filed against the guardian, and any disciplinary actions imposed by Elder Affairs.

It also requires the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), to use the database information to generate annual reports suggesting reforms.

The task force also called for 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.

Burke says while all the task force’s recommendations are important, the database is paramount.

“We provided the Legislature with 10 recommendations, but the database is the most important one,” Burke said. “How can you make a compelling argument for change unless you have real data?”

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