LARGO, Fla. — A new statewide task force will soon make recommendations to improve Florida’s troubled guardianship system.
The ABC Action News I-Team has been exposing serious problems with guardianship in Florida for eight years.
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We had an opportunity to engage in frank conversations with key players who say they’re seeking solutions to those problems to better protect vulnerable seniors.
Guardianship is the process in which judges remove rights from people who are determined to be incapacitated.
They can appoint family members, or even strangers, called professional guardians to manage their health, finances and personal affairs.
Big expectations filled the room full of court clerks, lawyers, guardians and advocates.
"We’re nowhere near getting it right yet"
It was the first in-person meeting of Florida’s Guardianship Improvement Task Force, which was formed earlier this year by the Florida Clerks & Comptrollers Association.
“What we’re hoping to accomplish is to make the system better. The purpose of this is to make legislative recommendations that will be enacted and protect the wards,” said Pinellas County Clerk of Courts Ken Burke, who chairs the task force.
“There have been problems. We constantly revisit it. We constantly try to improve the system. But we’re nowhere near getting it right yet,” Burke said.
The I-Team has done dozens of stories documenting how guardians isolate, exploit and abuse seniors under their care.
“We want to make sure there are systems in place to catch those bad actors and not let them wreak havoc on somebody’s life,” said Okaloosa County Clerk of Courts J.D. Peacock,II.
Peacock’s office investigated Rebecca Fierle, who is accused of causing the death of a man under her care by removing his feeding tube and putting a Do Not Resuscitate order in place without getting permission from a judge or family.
“With a case like Fierle that went statewide, a lot of people see that. A lot of players in the system see that. Certainly, the court sees that,” Peacock said.
Fierle is free on bond awaiting trial.
The I-Team learned that multiple prior complaints about Fierle had been filed with the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, the state watchdog office charged with policing professional guardians.
No action was taken against her as a result of the prior complaints.
"Everything isn’t perfect"
In fact, during its first five years, OPPG did not successfully revoke a single guardian's registration and had a backlog of more than 100 cases awaiting completion in early 2019.
“That just doesn’t strike me as being acceptable,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in February 2019.
At the Governor’s request, OPPG’s then executive director and several staff members resigned. DeSantis appointed attorney Chante’ Jones to head the office in 2020.
“Everything isn’t perfect. It’s not where I’d like it to be. It’s not where our citizens will be happy. But I think they would be happy with knowing some of the improvements that we’ve done,” Jones said.
She says her office is more responsive to complaints and has changed processes to move more quickly to identify problem guardians.
She says she also wants to make sure wards are more likely to be exploited by guardians in certain counties, including Pinellas County, which has been called a “hot spot” by guardianship advocates.
“We want to eliminate those hot spots you know, and whatever part we can play. I think this task force, it will help us do that,” Jones said.
"Legal gators in the swamp"
Changes can’t come soon enough for guardianship victims and advocates.
“This has been going on for way too long. There are legal gators in the swamp that are feeding off the vulnerable and it’s happening every single day,” said Karyn Turk.
Turk says her mother died with stage four bedsores in a nursing home while under guardianship.
“My hands were tied behind my back. I had no legal right to help her. The only person that they would speak to was the guardian and the guardian was nowhere to be found. She was silent as far as my family was concerned. She told us that if we needed to deal with her, we needed to go through the law firm and the law firm took no action,” Turk said.
She is now suing the nursing home and advocating for changes to Florida’s guardianship system.
“Until we rectify this in a major way, we’re gonna continue to see these same problems. And at the end of the day, it’s the fox watching the hen house,” Turk said.
You can see recordings of prior meetings and learn about upcoming meetings by visiting the Guardianship Improvement Task Force website.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org