Supreme Court chief justice tackles senior guardianship as complaints mount

The complaints emanate from all over the state and really the nation: Seniors and others found incapacitated by the courts too often are treated like piggy banks by professional guardians who put their fees above the needs of the ward.

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Concerns about seniors in guardianships have sparked protests outside of courthouses in Palm Beach County.
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Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Monday announced members of a task force that will focus on guardianship issues facing Florida’s courts.

He said few decisions are more challenging to a judge than removing a person’s rights because they are no longer capable of making decisions independently.

The Palm Beach Post, LaBarga’s hometown newspaper, has reported extensively on guardianship, particularly how one judge and his wife benefited from it in Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The stories resulted in an overhaul of the system in Palm Beach County courts. Circuit Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after the stories.

However, Colin’s wife, Elizabeth Savitt, continues to serve as a professional guardian despite increasing complaints by loved ones of her incapacitated wards. She has taken tens of thousands of dollars from seniors’s bank accounts prior to judicial approval, The Post found.

Savitt is often defended by Boca Raton attorney Ellen Morris, who recently sent a letter to the Department of Elder Affairs opposing proposed rules to regulate professional guardians. The six-page letter outlines a series of complaints and says the “rule proposals can not be implemented without extensive challenge and litigation.”

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Glenda Martinez Smith has won repeated appeals against the guardian appointed for her husband, J. Alan Smith. She has a case pending in front of the Florida Supreme Court on the annulment of her marriage.

Morris is the chair of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar and has argued — in the letter and repeatedly on behalf of Savitt — that professional guardians can take fees from a senior’s life savings before a judge approves them.

The Post spoke to numerous guardianship attorneys and none reads state statute as allowing guardians to take fees prior to  judicial approval.

Morris did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about her letter.

In a news release, Labarga, who lives in Welllington, said he created the work group because guardianship  caseloads are increasing in number and complexity.

“As Florida grows and ages, we can expect more and more cases dealing with guardianship issues to come into our courts,” Labarga said.

Individuals found incapacitated by the court are appointed a guardian. If a family member is not available, often a professional guardian steps in with complete control of the senior’s finances, medical decisions and housing.

In Florida and across the nation, professional guardians have been found to act in their own interests and not those of the incapacitated ward. Families of seniors have found themselves unable to battle professional guardians, who often employ legions of attorneys paid for by the incapacitated senior.

Florida’s guardianship system assists and protects individuals judged by a court to be unable to make decisions for themselves. When appointed by the court, guardians can make decisions about an individual’s care, finances or property on their behalf.

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a hearing with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine to discuss attorney fees for Albert Bach on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Elizabeth Savitt is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Elizabeth Savitt appears at a guardianship hearing.  (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

The Guardianship Workgroup established under the Court’s Judicial Management Council, will advise the chief justice and the Supreme Court on long-range issues confronting Florida’s judiciary.

Highlands County Circuit Judge Olin Shinholser, a member of the JMC, will serve as chair. He said there is too often conflict between the needs and desires of the ward — often a senior battling dementia — and the guardian, caregivers and even the family.

“Comments and complaints from various stakeholders are indicative that we need to take a closer look at whether the rules and procedures in place accomplish the balance needed,” he said.

State lawmakers passed laws in the last two legislative sessions to increase the state’s regulation and oversight of guardians.

Judge Martin Colin presides over a hearing on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Judge Colin's wife Elizabeth Savitt, who is a professional guardian, was simultaneously participating in a hearing in another courtroom with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after The Palm Beach Post reported on vast conflict of interest regarding adult guardianship. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

“This is an appropriate time to re-evaluate our system and determine if the courts are doing everything possible to meet the needs of everyone involved,” Labarga said. “It’s imperative we stay proactive in this area and provide real solutions to emerging issues.”

The work group will tackle a number of guardianship issues, including restoration of capacity for the senior or person put in a guardianship. Costs — which usually mean fees for the guardian and at least one lawyer — will also be addressed.

An interim report is due to the Court by October 2017 and a final report is due to the Court by September 2018.

Besides Shinholser, other members of the work group include:

  • Judge Robert Lee, Broward County, Fort Lauderdale
  • Judge Michelle Morley, 5th Circuit, Bushnell
  • Judge Peter Dearing, 4th Circuit, Jacksonville
  • Judge Maria Korvick, 11th Circuit, Miami
  • Jason Nelson, Office of Public and Professional Guardians, Florida Department of Elder Affairs, Tallahassee
  • Laird Lile, Lile & Hayes, PLLC, Naples
  • Andrew Sasso, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, Clearwater
  • Karen Campbell,  North Florida Office of Public Guardian, Tallahassee
  • Vicki Alkire,  Viable Alternatives, Inc., Sarasota

“Further evaluating guardianship practices supports the branch’s goal of ensuring that court procedures and operations are easily understandable and user-friendly and supports our mission to protect rights and liberties of all,” Shinholser said.

 

In the digital age, pediatricians tweak screen time rules

The American Academy of Pediatrics got some bad news for parents relying on the television or computer to babysit their kids: two hours of screen time may be too much.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics is tweaking outdated screen time rules in the age of 24/7 digital media – but it won’t be easy.

CNN reports that group is  tweaking outdated screen time rules in the age of 24/7 digital media – but it won’t be easy.

“It doesn’t make sense to make a blanket statement [of two hours] of screen time anymore,” said Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, lead author of the “Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report” and assistant professor at UCLA.

There is nothing cute about the toddler at the table next to you playing with mommy’s cell phone.

Babies under 18 months should be kept from all digital devices, the researcher said. “The TV should not be a babysitter,” she said. “It’s much better to talk to a child or read from a book.”

Children 2 to 5 years of age should be limited to one hour a day and older children should have defined restrictions by their parents on screen time, Chassiakos added.

Reports says teens spend 9 hours a day using media.

For healthy kids, an average day includes “school, homework time, at least one hour of physical activity, social contact and sleep — which is anywhere from eight to 12 hours for kids, said Chassiakos.

“Whatever’s left over can be screen time,” she said.

Read the whole CNN story by clicking here.

Depression: researchers find biomarker for disorder

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found a physical difference in the brain that may serve as a biomarker for depression.

UPI, reporting on a study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, says researchers came across the discovery while comparing the brains of people at high and low risk for depression based on their family history.

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Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found a physical difference in the brains that may serve as a biomarker for depression, according to a study is published in Neuropsychopharmacology.

“These findings suggest that looking at activity in the DMN may offer an objective method of identifying people who are at risk of developing major depression,” said Dr. Myrna Weissman, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center.

“This may represent a another way toward advancing prevention and early intervention for this major public health issue.”

Using MRI scans, researchers found the DMN system is more active when people are thinking deeply about something, and shown to have increased connections in people with major depressive disorder.

Dr. Jonathan Posner, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center said the research could lead to  behavioral interventions, such as meditation and mindfulness – the later has been successful in treating addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Read the whole UPI story by clicking here.

Germ warfare! Zika mosquito to be infected with bacteria

Turn-about appears to be fair play with the newest plan to combat the mosquito carrying the Zika virus.

We will infect them before they can infect us.Mosquito

Health News Florida reports that the initial trial – starting next March – to use bacteria to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito has been approved for Florida Keys. The mosquito also carries dengue fever and chikingunya.

The Wolbachia bacteria is a genus of bacteria that infect a high proportion of insects and offers an alternative to pesticide spraying.  When a male Aedes aegypti mosquito with Wolbachia mates with a female, the eggs don’t hatch.

“It’s a benign, effective process that has gone through significantly more scrutiny than genetically modified mosquitoes,” said Ed Russo, chairman of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. “Wolbachia has the broad support of all the people in the Florida Keys.

 

 

New ways to combat the pests are needed because fewer insecticides and pesticides are available, said Beth Ranson, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.  The Aedes aegypti population in Key West is also showing signs of resistance to some of the existing treatments, she said.

“We’re going to look at every available tool that’s out there that’s approved for us to try,” she said.

Zika virus has been linked to serious birth defects, including microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected.

In total, Florida has reported 1,031 Zika infections this year, with 179 local cases and 847 travel-related cases, including 108 pregnant women.

 

To read the full Health News Florida report click here.

Teen dies after court-ordered to South Florida drug treatment center

A 17-year-old court-ordered to a South Florida drug treatment center for delinquent youths died at the facility.

The teen, found dead  Monday in his room at the Broward Youth Treatment Center, had been court-ordered into treatment at a privately run program under contract with Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice in Pembroke Pines.

Police said in a news release they don’t suspect foul play.10505404_996448617079268_7765672934859293466_n

Attorney: Accusers silence finally broken by Trump’s denial of sexual assault

Fort Lauderdale Attorney Adam Horowitz knows how hard it is for victims of sexual assault – be it rape or unwanted kissing and groping – to come forward.

So the lawyer who has represented other alleged victims in civil actions in Florida says he is not surprised that women claiming they were sexually assaulted by Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump kept their stories to a close circle of friends for years, even decades.

He does not represent as of yet any of the woman who has accused Trump of groping or other sexual misconduct.

Attorney Adam Horowitz represents 20 women accusing doctors of sexual misconduct. ‘Patients have a right to know what their doctors are accused of,’ he says. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
Attorney Adam Horowitz has represented victims of sexual assault. He says that Trump’s denial of abuse was the final straw for women to come forward with their allegations against him. (Photo: Palm Beach Post)

Trump’s accusers said it was the last straw when they saw him during Sunday’s debate deny he ever forced himself on any women despite audio tape of him bragging about it. Trump was forced to answer the question by the moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“Nothing gets a victim more irate as the perpetrator denying it and making excuses for his behavior,” said Horowitz, who has no connection with the Trump accusers. “He was not taking ownership of his action and they also knew they weren’t alone.”

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Mindy McGillivray of Palm Springs, Fla., says she was helping a photographer at a concert at Mar-a-Lago when Trump touched her. (Photo courtesy of Davidoff Studios)

The Palm Beach Post in an exclusive reported that Mindy McGillivray said Trump groped her 13 years ago while she was at his Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago.

People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff also came forward to say she was attacked by Trump at Mar-a-Lago during an interview.

The New York Times has a separate story about of two other women who say Trump made unwanted sexual advances to them in the early 2000s.

Trump’s campaign has said the women are lying and are part of coordinated effort on the media’s part to smear the candidate and tilt the election in the favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton. He has dismissed what was caught on audio tape as “locker room talk.”

“It may be an October surprise to Donald Trump, but these women have told other people before,” Horowitz said.

Trump’s campaign rounded up women who have made accusations against Clinton’s husband – former President Bill Clinton – of sexual assault, saying their voices should be heard. They say Hillary Clinton worked to discredit their stories.

Horowitz represents 20 women accusing doctors of sexual misconduct. The Palm Beach Post in July investigated doctors accused of sexually abusing their patients and how they were allowed by the state to keep practicing for years.

The lawyer said that many women have been victims of this kind of unwanted advance and that this election has laid bare this an ugly culture.

“Just this week on Twitter thousands of women are reporting their first instance of sexual assault. It is empowering to them to tell their stories,” Horowitz said. “There is strength in numbers.”

Yet, when the assault actually happens, the victim feels completely isolated and powerless.

“Sexual abuse is still a stigma and nobody wants that label attached to them,” Horowitz said. “At the same time, most of these women don’t think they will be believed.”

Context is also important because the person doing the groping is a person of power – an employer, a doctor, a person of standing in the community – then women must consider if coming forward will “interfere with their professional development or advancement in the workplace,” he said.

“You kind of just want to leave it alone – that is how some women feel,” Horowitz said.

He said the Trump accusers have little to gain by coming forward.

It is too late to press criminal charges against Trump and any civil monetary redress would be difficult because these incidences happened so long ago.

“They certainly are not in it for the money,” he said. “It is not a surprise that the women who have come forward are being attacked and being challenged.

“It is amazing that this is what our election is coming down to,” Horowitz said. “At the same time if it empowers women to tell their stories and if this exposes this culture than it is a positive thing.”

With thousands in attendance, Donald Trump holds a rally in Boca Raton on the eve of Florida's primary election at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater in Boca Raton, March 13, 2016. (Daniel Owen / The Palm Beach Post)
Donald Trump at a rally earlier this year in Boca Raton, March 13, 2016. (Photo: The Palm Beach Post)

State: Boca doc failed to properly treat cancer of FAU student

The Florida Health Department is seeking to revoke the medical license of a Boca Raton doctor who failed to properly treat the cancer of a Florida Atlantic University student, according to a story by Health News Florida.

Dr. Kenneth Woliner – an integrative medicine specialist with Holistic Family Medicine – repeatedly analyzed Stephanie Sofronsky’s blood and ordered iron shots, herbal supplements, and antibiotics while failing to treat her cancer with chemotherapy, the state claims.

Medical experts had already told Sofronsky that she had an 80 percent chance of beating Hodgkin lymphoma with chemotherapy.

Health Department prosecutors proved by “clear and convincing evidence” that Woliner committed medical malpractice and financially exploited his patient, Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy wrote in April.

According to testimony from the patient’s mother, Martha Sofronsky, Woliner said he didn’t think Stephanie had cancer despite it being diagnosed by three different hospitals.

Woliner seemed more inclined to think Sofronsky’s symptoms came from allergies to mold and other substances, she said.

Sofronsky died in February 2013, two years after seeking Woliner’s help. An autopsy by a Palm Beach County medical examiner attributed her death to untreated Hodgkin lymphoma. She was one year from graduation at FAU.

Woliner’s attorneys argue that Sofronsky was an adult who chose her course of treatment. They say Woliner wasn’t even her primary care physician.

“Dr. Woliner was engaged to investigate Sofronsky’s thyroid issues, not to diagnose or treat her cancer,” wrote George Indest III and Lance Leider of The Health Law Firm in Altamonte Springs.

To read the complete Health News Florida story click here.

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Dr. Kenneth Woliner