The ABC Action News I-Team first started looking into Florida's Guardianship Program after we learned 99-year-old William Berchau had been placed in an Alzheimer's unit by his guardian, despite strong evidence from those who know him best that he didn't belong there.
We soon began looking at more than 50 other cases involving his guardian, Patricia Johnson, and Florida's guardianship system.
The I-Team discovered a system that claims to look after wards' best interests, but has very little oversight outside of the courtroom.
In Florida, guardians are not required to get appraisals before selling wards' homes, leading to homes often selling far below their actual values (meaning less money is available for wards' care). Guardians also aren't required to be accompanied while doing initial inventories of personal possessions. Often, relatives aren't allowed to review what reportedly came out of their loved ones' homes.
Guardians use the "honor system" when submitting bills.
Judges, in some cases, have disregarded signed legal documents that delegated powers-of-attorney, medical decision-making and other legal authorities to their relatives before wards were incapacitated.
The I-Team interviewed friends and family members of wards, experts in the guardian field and others to get a deeper sense of what's going on within this system that remains invisible to most members of the public.
William attempted to sell his house and was taken into the Florida Guardian Program.
Rita Eldridge was a longtime resident of St. Petersburg, and incapacitated in 2007.
Rebie Ellen Jimenez is 74 years old. She became a ward of Patricia Johnson in August of 2012.
Paulette Karpa was born in 1924 in Eastern Europe. Patricia Johnson was appointed her guardian.
Patricia Johnson has been a professional guardian in Pinellas County for the past 27 years.
Judge Jack St. Arnold presides over more than 3,500 guardianship cases in Pinellas County.
Melton worked for nine years as Inspector General for the Pinellas Co. Office of the Clerk of Circuit Courts.
Irene Rausch is President of the Pinellas County Guardianship Association.
Pinellas County has the most guardianship cases in the State of Florida. I-Team investigator Adam Walser discovered that only two judges preside over more than 3,500 guardianship cases in Pinellas County.