In the wake of numerous stories of abuse throughout the state of incapacitated seniors by guardians, the Florida House sent a bill to Gov. Rick Scott to exert regulatory authority over such professionals.
By a vote of 115-2, the House passed a bill designed to create the Office of Public and Professional Guardians. For the first time, the state will have the power to investigate and discipline professional guardians.
The Legislature’s action comes in the wake of media reports about professional guardians who are more interested in draining the savings of incapacitated seniors than protecting them. Last month, The Palm Beach Post’s series Guardianship: A Broken Trust brought to public attention the role of the judiciary in exacerbating the guardianship problem.
The bill was also passed on a day when protesters marched outside of the Palm Beach County Courthouse in Delray Beach, calling for judicial reform in the wake of The Post’s guardianship stories, which led to Chief Judge Jeffrey Cobalth to transfer Circuit Judge Martin Colin, whose wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, is a guardian, to another division and to announce training and other changes.
The bill, which passed the Senate on Feb. 2, has received support from Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida State Guardianship Association.
The lawmaker behind the proposal, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has referred to unethical professional guardians as “cockroaches,” saying they “prey upon the elderly.”
Under guardianships, seniors found by the court to be unable to take care of themselves often lose all legal rights to make decisions for themselves. When a family member is not available or they can’t agree on what to do, a judge can appoint professional guardians to make decisions on finances, medical care and housing for the senior.
Anybody can become a professional guardian with such vast powers over another’s life by simply going through a credit and criminal check and 40 hours of training.
Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, hailed Detert for her determination. “We hope the momentum towards meaningful reform of the guardianship system in Florida will continue as other new champions arise in the Legislature,” he said.
The law is the second measure of guardianship reform passed by the Legislature in as many years. In 2015, a law was signed by Gov. Scott that imposed criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a senior in guardianship, requires more notice of emergency temporary guardianship proceedings, and makes it harder to suspend a family member’s power of attorney during the litigation process.
Fernando Gutierrez, a director of the GuardianAssociation of Pinellas County, said he said the new law focuses solely on financial abuse, not on failure of those in his industry to to properly make correct medical decisions for the seniors in their care – including when to withdraw medical care at the end of life.
“I was telling staff people of the senators a CNA (certified nursing assistant) has more medical training than 98 percent of the guardians out there,” he said.
Gutierrez said he has received some opposition from his fellow professional guardians for embracing reform.
“I’m sort of like the black sheep,” he said. “They think I’m trying to lessen the credibility of the guardian, but far from it. I’m speaking for the silent majority.”