|Kathleen Zagaros and her Mother|
“When the guardian came on, my mother had more than a $1 million. Three years later, she has virtually nothing,” said the Tampa woman, who eventually got the guardian replaced.
The Palm Beach Post investigated local allegations about court-appointed professional guardians in stories that ran April 3.
And the Florida Legislature this year took notice of the plight of seniors who are taken advantage of by unscrupulous court-appointed professional guardians and the attorneys who orbit around them, exacting fees.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called professional guardians “cockroaches” in a committee meeting.
|Rep. Kathleen Passidomo|
In the end, a bill sponsored by Passidomo became law, while Detert’s proposal died and will have to wait until 2016.
“The best thing about Passidomo’s bill is that it gives the victims’ voices credibility — that the surreal world of guardianship abuse really does exist,” said Julie London-Ferguson of Sarasota, who has also fought the guardianship in her mother’s case and is an outspoken critic of the process.
Guardianship occurs under state law when a circuit judge finds an adult — often a senior experiencing dementia or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — to be incapacitated. A guardian is then appointed to handle some or all of their affairs. Often this is a family member, but not always. When there is acrimony between siblings, for example, a professional guardian is appointed.
The Post found that the industry of professional guardianship is booming, swelling from 108 registered individuals in 2003 to 456. Their power can be absolute — with the ability to decide what medical care their ward will receive and whether they should be moved out of their homes. Guardians and attorneys can easily deplete estates by filing pleading after pleading.
If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, Passidomo’s bill would require notice to be given before hearings can be held on the appointment of emergency temporary guardians. It would also allow the mediation of guardianship disputes among family members and require the reporting of incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of wards by guardians. In an effort to prevent trolling of nursing homes by guardians, it also would prohibit an emergency temporary guardian becoming the permanent one.
Passidomo’s bill (HB 5), which also would create a process of randomly assigning guardians, appeared in jeopardy with the House’s early adjournment last week, but was able to pass after Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, withdrew an amendment he had wanted to add. If he had insisted on adding the amendment, which only made an exception for an agency in his district, it would have killed the bill, as it would have required another House vote after it had adjourned.
“It just wouldn’t be very classy to bring her legislation down in light of what the House did,” he said
“If you read the bill, you realize we are holding the guardians accountable,” Passidomo said, but she hopes this session opens up a larger discussion.
“The question you want to ask is — and we have not yet had this dialogue — should the state involve themselves in family relationships,” Passidomo said.
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Lawmakers Take "First Step" to Curb Abuse by Professional Guardians