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Florida lawmakers demand guardianship reform as I-Team finds investigation backlog at state watchdog

Posted: 6:14 AM, Dec 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-16 23:26:30-05
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Federal and state lawmakers are demanding major reforms after the ABC Action News I-Team uncovered that Florida’s broken guardianship system is failing seniors, including new findings that show an investigative backlog at the watchdog agency charged with policing the state’s guardians.

“You start to realize after your great reporting – and thank you very much for that – the incidents and how often this is happening in Florida,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-FL. “It’s very troubling.”

Crist and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-FL, have proposed legislation to create a national database to better screen guardians caring for the estimated 1.3 million seniors across the nation who the courts have declared are unable to care for themselves.

Read the Guardianship Accountability Act.

“Obviously whatever steps have been taken thus far haven’t been sufficient to stop the kind of activity that at least we’re seeing in Florida,” said Crist. “But obviously it’s happening in other parts of the country.”

I-Team Investigator Adam Walser, who has spent six years covering the state's broken guardianship system, recently uncovered Florida guardians routinely issuing do-not-resuscitate orders on people under their care without court approval.

RELATED: Florida guardians routinely issue “Do Not Resuscitate” orders without court oversight

The I-Team also found hospitals across the state paying private attorneys to go to court to put patients in guardianship for questionable reasons, including a shortage of hospital beds and because a patient with a Kia Soul that “is almost paid off... may be repossessed.”

State lawmakers look to crack down on broken system

“It really shone a spotlight on the issue,” said state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, about the I-Team’s findings.

Passidomo is sponsoring a bill at the State House to regulate how professional guardians are appointed and paid. The legislation would also require guardians to get a judge to sign off before do-not-resuscitate orders are issued on people in guardianship.

SB 994 by wftsweb on Scribd

“The bottom line is we do not want to make a mistake. Because a do-not-resuscitate (order) is final. It’s death, so I’d rather err on the side of caution,” said Passidomo.

RELATED: Tampa Bay area hospitals seeking to strip away patients' rights, I-Team investigation finds

State Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, told ABC Action News she plans to support the bill after receiving calls from constituents about problems with guardians.

“This is evil. What’s happening here is really evil,” said Cruz.

State Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, who is co-sponsoring a companion bill in the House, said, “When I first heard about this, I was like, ‘What do we need to do? And we need to do it now.’”

State watchdog falling down on the job

New internal documents obtained by the I-Team shows the Office of Public and Professional Guardians – the state agency charged with policing problems in guardianship – is fighting a growing backlog of investigation reports.

In most cases, an investigation report had been completed for at least 200 days before the agency officially closed the case.

Records also show the backlog existed even before the entire agency staff resigned earlier this year in the wake of the I-Team’s reports on the state’s troubled guardianship system.

RELATED: State confirms mass resignations at Florida watchdog office overseeing guardianship abuse

Kathleen Zagaros, who complained to OPPG about a guardian ignoring her mother’s wishes and issuing a do-not-resuscitate order, waited more than a year to find out the results of the investigation into her case.

The office opened an investigation after she complained in 2017. Investigators turned in the finished report on Sept. 25, 2018, but the case wasn’t officially closed until more than a year later on Oct. 14, 2019 – the date of the warning letter the agency sent to the guardian.

“They weren’t supposed to keep investigating,” said Zagaros. “They just sat on it.”

The I-Team obtained work calendars for senior agency staff during that time which showed conference calls and budget meetings, but also more than a dozen office social events. Including birthday lunches, a bake sale, a chili cook-off and something called a “rainy day pizza party.”

Zagaros said she believes the state only sent her mother’s guardian a warning letter after the I-Team got involved in her case and began asking questions.

“It just took off. The story took off and everything has happened since then,” said Zagaros. “People are more aware. We’re finally being listened to.”

The I-Team uncovered OPPG spent more than $600,000 in tax dollars paying Florida county court clerks to investigate 84 guardians, including some for multiple complaints. But despite its own investigators finding serious issues, the office has only revoked one license in the three years since it opened.

In February, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for change at the agency after an I-Team report at the time found OPPG had 132 open investigations for verified complaints against guardians.

“What troubled me about some of the issues you guys raised was obviously bad things are happening, but there doesn’t seem to be anybody held accountable,” said DeSantis at the time. “That just doesn’t strike me as being acceptable.”

Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom released this statement on Monday morning.

The Department of Elder Affairs is committed to ensuring vulnerable elders in the care of professional guardians are protected. After discovering inefficiencies in the program in July 2019, I took direct control of the Office of Public & Professional Guardians (OPPG) and asked for the resignation of its Executive Director. Following the director’s resignation, I worked with our agency’s General Counsel to swiftly clear a backlog of approximately 80 cases. I have been working closely with the Governor’s Office to recommend increased funding and have been working with Representative Colleen Burton and Senator Kathleen Passidomo on new legislation seeking improvements to the guardianship program. Under current law, our agency has limited ability to hold bad actors accountable and may only refer complaints to the courts. The new legislation addresses issues of conflicts of interest, compensation and strengthening and formalizing the process by which a professional guardian obtains a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order on a ward.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email adam@abcactionnews.com.