ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Weeks after 99-year-old Willi Berchau was released from Florida's Guardianship Program, his story is prompting a local lawmaker to reform the state guardianship law.
Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Pinellas County) is sponsoring new legislation after seeing the I-Team's report featuring Berchau's story.
Surrounded by friends and supporters, Berchau celebrated returning to the retirement community he calls home.
"I almost lost hope," he said. "I figured I would never be back at this place."
The I-Team uncovered that Berchau had been locked away in a dementia unit at an assisted living facility by a professional guardian last summer after being declared incapacitated by the state and losing all his rights.
We interviewed him when he was allowed to go on a rare church outing.
"I can dress myself. I can take a shower. I can walk," said Berchau at the time, questioning why someone would lock him away.
"Many of us had neighbors who, when they heard Willi's case said ‘no this can't happen here,'" said Jane Barr, a former volunteer ombudsman for the state who became involved in Berchau's efforts to free himself from court-ordered guardianship.
With the I-Team's stories, a new lawyer and the help of volunteers who called themselves "Team Willi," Berchau was eventually reevaluated, found competent and released.
One person who paid close attention was Sen. Brandes, who is now sponsoring a law to reform Florida's existing guardianship system.
"Willi's story is what prompted it. We heard the story and it was just so compelling and we knew that we needed to do something," Brandes said.
Hearings begin next week in Tallahassee on the proposed state law.
Brandes said the bill appears to have strong support from other lawmakers.
"They were shocked that it's 2014 and we don't have this kind of legislation in place," he said.
Another person paying attention was U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
"That's one example of an outrageous case," he said.
In Washington, Nelson is sponsoring the Guardian Accountability and Senior Protection Act, which would provide more federal oversight over state guardianship programs.
"The state courts need to follow up when complaints are filed. It's clear that the courts are not being aggressive enough," Nelson said.
Meanwhile Berchua has vowed to spend the rest of his life telling his story.
"You people were the ones that helped me," Berchau said. "To me, you are a God given gift. That's all I can say."
He hopes his efforts will keep what happened to him from happening to anyone else.
Berchau has agreed to travel to Tallahassee and testify on behalf of the proposed guardianship bill as it makes its way through committees.