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Task force hears about guardianship abuses

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Guardianship Improvement Task ForceA mother serving as a guardian for her paraplegic daughter used money earmarked for her daughter’s continuing medical care to pay for lavish family vacations and late fees for missed mortgage payments.

In another case, a guardian without court permission sold her ward’s property at an estate-type sale managed by her husband and failed to get receipts for the largely cash sales. The guardian later filed documents stating expenses from the sale exceeded proceeds, costing the ward more money. The guardian also billed the ward for storing property at a building owned by the guardian and for labor provided by her children.

In yet another instance, a family member complained a guardian was interfering with visits to the ward. But an investigation showed that family member was providing crack cocaine and marijuana to the ward and holding drug parties at the ward’s home.

Those and other examples of problem guardianships in Florida were presented to the Guardianship Improvement Task Force at its August 5 meeting. The task force was created as an independent body by the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers to recommend legislative solutions to guardianship issues in the state.

Task Force Vice Chair Anthony Palmieri, deputy inspector general for the Palm Beach County Clerk of Court, told the task force that in Palm Beach County alone the 3,000 to 3,200 open guardianship cases control more than $1 billion in assets.

Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke

Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke

The task force reviewed state laws and how the guardianship process works at its July 28 meeting. For its August 5 gathering, “The idea was to bring up case studies from around the state where the system has not worked as it should and look to see if there are legislative solutions,” said Pinellas Clerk of Court and task force Chair Ken Burke.

Cases cited came from an alliance of six clerks’ offices — from Palm Beach, Pinellas, Sarasota, Lee, Okaloosa, and Polk counties — that do investigations for the Office of Public and Professional Guardians in the Department of Elder Affairs.

The alliance has handled more than 1,500 investigations, found more than $8 million in “financial deficiencies,” as well as conflicts of interest, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, and criminal activity. The investigations found 13.2% of the initiating complaints were true and around 11% had observations, which were largely minor or technical violations of guardianship laws and reporting requirements, Palmieri said.

Nancy Abraham and Lita McHugh of the Polk County Clerk of Courts office and Jenna Murphy of the Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts office provided details on cases they had investigated. Those included:

• The mother and guardian of the paraplegic daughter, who had an ongoing settlement to pay for medical care, failed to keep receipts and over several years may have spent $100,000 for unauthorized uses. She did, however, take excellent care of her daughter. After attempts to reform the mother’s financial lapses failed, a professional guardian was brought in to handle the finances, and the resulting savings were accumulated to meet the daughter’s future unexpected medical needs.

• An attorney and guardian had an unresolved conflict with his ward and awarded himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in guardian and legal fees that were not court approved.

• A guardian sold a ward’s property without court approval at an estate-type sale that her husband was hired to administer, failed to get receipts for the cash transactions, kept the ward’s property in rental storage she owned, and hired her sons as laborers to do work for the ward.

• A guardian hired friends and friends of her employees to perform services for a ward. The guardian also belonged to a multi-level marketing association, which allowed her to collect commissions when she bought products for her ward through that association.

• A ward complained about her guardian, including not helping her regain her rights, but investigation showed the ward had continuing problems with alcohol abuse and being disruptive at facilities where she lived.

• Family members sometimes take wards from nursing homes or similar facilities for meals or family events and fail to return them. In one case, a sibling got the ward to sign over the deed to a condo and took money from the ward’s bank account.

While the investigators presented instances of both guardian and family member abuse, during public testimony several individuals said problems lie largely with guardians who deny access to family members and mistreat wards, and that judges have too much power in the current system.

“I personally think that guardianship cannot be fixed, it must be abolished and replaced with something more humane and more just,” said Sam Sugar. He called for a better “balance between people in charge and people they are in charge of.”

Task force member Hillary Hogue, an advocate for wards and family members, cited several cases where guardians stole from wards and denied family members access and called for the task force to look at the Office of Public and Professional Guardians at a future meeting. Burke agreed to devote a meeting to that topic.

Rich Black called for a “digitized system” to track financial reports from guardians, which he said would do 90% of the work of finding financial problems. He said other states, including Minnesota and Pennsylvania, use such a system.

Guardianship attorney Steve Hitchcock said the current system is not equipped to evaluate the quality of care for a ward, and suggested that licensed social workers, nurse care managers, and similar professionals be used to review ward care.

Task Force member Gina Rossi-Scheiman, executive director of the Florida State Guardian Association, disputed there are widespread problems with professional guardians, noting Palmieri’s report that the vast majority of complaints against guardians are found without basis. But she said more education for guardians and an independent court monitoring program might improve the system.

“There are thousands of individuals with severe disabilities who are protected by professional guardians or family guardians. Many do not have any other individuals looking after them,” Rossi-Scheiman said. “To look at Florida’s system and say it is problematic from start to finish, I have to disagree with that.”

The task force’s next meeting is August 19 and will look at how other states address guardianships.

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