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AARP Florida makes guardianship reform a top priority

Bill advocating major changes withdrawn before hearings
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Posted at 3:46 PM, Feb 09, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — AARP Florida announced in January that reforming professional guardianship is one of the organization’s top priorities during this year’s Florida legislative session. 

But a proposed bill calling for major reforms was withdrawn from consideration Wednesday before it even came to a vote.

This is an issue the ABC Action News I-Team has been covering for nearly a decade in our ongoing series called “The Price of Protection”.

The Rebecca Fierle trial, which involved the death of a man under the care of a professional guardian, ended in a mistrial in September.

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Then in December, we reported how the Pinellas County Clerk’s Office released a scathing report outlining problems with professional guardian Traci Hudson's cases as she awaits trial on multiple felony charges.  

Those are just two recent examples of problems with Florida’s professional guardianship system. 

Florida AARP, the state’s largest organization, which advocates for people over 50, is hoping state leaders will address the problem.

The organization is making guardianship reform a top priority in this year’s legislative session. 

“The standards for guardians need to be scrutinized. And we need to make sure we’re only letting in the most trustworthy individuals who are going to be in these positions of care and responsibility,” said Karen Murillo, a former prosecutor who now serves as AARP’s Assistant State Director.  

About a hundred trained volunteers lobbied lawmakers on behalf of AARP during the weeks leading up to the session.  

“We need to be prioritizing meaningful reform in guardianship and making sure that we’re putting the protections in place to safeguard the rights and welfare of individuals under guardianship because they don’t always have the opportunity to advocate for themselves,” Murillo said.  

Guardianship is a legal process in which a judge can strip away a person’s rights if they are found to be incapacitated.  

“We’re talking about the right to choose where you live—the right to choose what health care you receive. The right to choose what property you keep or sell,” Murillo said.  

House bill 297, introduced by Florida Representative Mike Caruso, would “establish the visitation rights of the family of the person alleged to be incapacitated” with “presumption in favor of allowing visitation or other contact with the family.” 

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Currently, professional guardians alone have the power to determine who can and can’t visit people under their care. 

“I never thought anything like this could happen,” said Dr. Lillie Sykes White said in a video shot by her niece Teresa Kennedy. 

In 2020, we told you how White’s guardian hid her and prevented her family from visiting her for years.

White died in January 2021 from COVID-19.

“She dies alone without her family knowing. And two weeks later, we find out,” Kennedy said.  

Caruso’s bill would have also required “full reevaluation of need for guardianship after a certain time” And would have reformed petitions for appointed, verified inventory and annual accounting requirements. 

But the bill was withdrawn Wednesday. Records show that no companion bill had been filed in the Florida Senate.

We contacted Caruso’s office Wednesday but have not heard back.

Despite significant reforms no longer being on the legislative agenda, AARP hopes to continue educating its members about how to avoid guardianship altogether.  

 “We want to make sure that when that’s happening it is the last resort. That we are exploring all the least-restrictive alternatives to that process before we ever get to the point of guardianship,” Murillo said.  

Here are links to find free AARP resources regarding power of attorney agreements, living will, health care surrogacy, and other issues that can help you and your loved ones avoid ending up in a court-ordered guardianship.

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com