Guardianship News:

Florida: Senator Detert renews bid to reform guardianship program

HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE / 2014 / RACHEL S. O'HARA Sen. Nancy Detert. HERALD-TRIBUNE ARCHIVE / 2014 / RACHEL S. O'HARA Sen. Nancy Detert.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has started a second effort to reform Florida’s adult guardianship system, and said Wednesday that this legislation will be her top priority for the 2016 session.

The new bill seeks to establish what she calls a “complaint department” for Floridians affected by the guardianship system — in a repeat of her original legislation that was stymied by political maneuvers over health care funding last spring. This time around, Detert said, she has worked with the Department of Elder Affairs to agree on an estimate of what the law would cost to implement.

Introducing her bill early in the legislative process should improve its chances, she said: “If it falls off the tracks, we have time to put it back.”

The state’s statute on guardianship gives judges power to remove an elder’s civil rights and appoint a family or professional guardian to make all legal, financial and medical decisions for that person. Problems with this process were the basis of a Herald-Tribune series last December, “The Kindness of Strangers: Inside Florida’s Elder Guardianship System.” Through case studies, the series looked at wards and their families who felt trapped in a legal maze they did not understand.

Detert’s bill, SB 232, would establish an Office of Public and Professional Guardians to certify and supervise court-appointed guardians. Currently, the amount of oversight varies from county to county, and no formal avenue exists for wards or their families to complain about unsatisfactory guardianships.

Detert’s first version of the bill was one of three guardianship reform attempts in 2015. Only one was signed into law: HB 5 — written by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples — which tightened many aspects of the statute that had made it easy to seize control of elders’ assets, and also more clearly spelled out the duties of a state-appointed guardian. Passidomo’s bill made it through both chambers in the final hours, just before House members went home early rather than reach an agreement on Medicaid and the budget. Detert’s legislation was left hanging.

“We did have the kerfuffle where they walked out; that didn’t help,” Detert said. “But the real problem was that the governor’s office put a big dollar amount on the bill — $2 million — while our office said it would cost $800,000. When I went back to the governor and the head of elder affairs, they tried to work with me and bicycle backwards, but it was too late.”

Detert said Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has been “pretty cooperative” about added reforms to the guardianship system. Secretary of Elder Affairs Samuel Verghese, she said, will appear with her at an Oct. 1 panel discussion hosted by the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club. A spokeswoman from Verghese’s office confirmed that the event is on his schedule.

Sam Sugar, founder of the Florida-based Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said his organization “deeply appreciates” Detert’s commitment to reform. But one concern about SB 232, he said, is its reliance on the state Department of Children and Families to address complaints.

“As gatekeeper, investigative agency and gateway to law enforcement and state attorneys,” Sugar said, “DCF and its Adult Protective Services division have a long history of both ignoring legitimate victims’ complaints, as well as accusing and victimizing the complainant.”

Detert’s involvement in the guardianship issue was inspired by meetings with constituents affected by the system and articles in the Herald-Tribune. She hopes the strong momentum for reform in the 2015 session will push her bill to completion next spring.

“On the Senate side, there was total agreement that something needs to be done,” she said. “They are outraged that someone can come in and take over your whole life, and if you don’t like it, we don’t even have a complaint department.”

Republicans do not usually favor extra regulation, Detert added, but adult guardianship poses a philosophical question of individual rights.

“People do deserve to be in the least restrictive atmosphere,” she said. “If you want to sit in your house and drink until your money’s all gone, you should be able to do that. We’re not all going to be little robots.”