More than 20 years ago, Rebecca Fierle began to make a name for herself as a protector of vulnerable seniors.
As an employee of the Senior Resource Alliance in the mid-1990s, Fierle coordinated a program with Orange County Fire Rescue to help find elderly people in need of services such as Meals on Wheels or assistance with grocery shopping or housekeeping.
“I’ve called the abuse hotline three times since we started,” Fierle said in a 1997 Sentinel story about the program. “We’ve found two cases of neglect and one financial exploitation case."
That image of Fierle, now 50, as a watchdog for seniors stands in stark contrast to the investigations and complaints swirling around her today.
Her work as a professional guardian is the subject of a state investigation, an audit by the Orange County Comptroller and an ongoing criminal probe.
The question is how she cared for the hundreds of sick or disabled people, many of them elderly, declared incapacitated by a judge and in need of someone to handle their medical decisions, financial affairs or both.
In one case, a man died in May after she refused to lift a do not resuscitate order that he said he did not want — a desire corroborated by the man’s family and a hospital psychiatrist, according to the Clerks’ Statewide Investigations of Professional Guardians Alliance review.
Some families have told the Sentinel that they also question the care their relatives received after a judge declared them incapacitated, taking away nearly all of their rights to make their own decisions, and handed their affairs over to Fierle.
One woman said her mother died after she did not receive cancer treatment. Another woman said she found a DNR order in her grandmother’s nursing home file that the family did not know about and that a court never approved. And a mental health counselor who served on a court committee to determine whether people should have their rights taken away said she resigned from that role over concerns about Fierle’s work. But the complaint the counselor sent to the court and state office that oversees professional guardians was only acknowledged months ago, more than three years after she sent it.
Other families of the incapacitated people Fierle served, or wards as they are called in court, have expressed surprise about the allegations against her.
Dena Nazarchuk Grantham said Fierle was her brother’s guardian and brought peace of mind and was helpful during a tumultuous time for her family.
“[My brother] kept trying to tell me she wasn’t what she pretended to be,” Nazarchuk Grantham said. “It just blows my mind. She was very kind with me. … I’m hurt.”
The two images of Fierle — one as a person seen by judges, attorneys and some families as a devoted guardian and the other as the person who sits at the center of what could be one of Florida’s most complicated and bizarre elder abuse cases — collided last month at an Orlando hearing in front of Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe.
The judge revoked all DNR orders and advanced directives put in place by Fierle in her Orange County cases as a precaution after the circumstances of Steven Stryker’s death came to light.
“Rebecca Fierle has been a professional guardian for a long time. I rely on our professional guardians tremendously for what they carry,” Thorpe said, adding: “This is an extraordinary hearing that is being held on an expedited basis because of the circumstances we find ourselves in.”
Fierle and her attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Fierle earned a degree in psychology and a certificate in gerontology from the University of Central Florida in December 1996, just before venturing out to start a business of her own. She left her job at the Senior Resource Alliance in 1997, according to an application she filed in Seminole County court.
By December 2000 she completed the required 40 hours of training required to become a professional guardian and alerted the clerk that she would begin to take on guardianship cases, according to documents in her Orange County guardianship file.
She incorporated Geriatric Management Inc. in 2003 and, in addition to guardianship, the company specialized in helping people qualify for Medicaid benefits to cover nursing home stays and other services, according to the company web site.
No one came to the door when a reporter twice visited Geriatric Management, which is in a small converted house just northeast of downtown Orlando.
Fierle listed more than 500 people for whom she served as guardian, including 168 current cases in 10 counties and one out of state in North Carolina, on an application she filed in Seminole County earlier this year. Exact counts of her caseload varies because the Orange County auditors found her accounting of cases listed in Orange to contain duplicate case numbers and omissions of some cases.
An attorney for AdventHealth, who appeared at the July 11 hearing, told Judge Thorpe that Fierle had taken on about 50 former patients at the hospital as wards and that the hospital paid her for her services, according to a transcript of the hearing.
AdventHealth spokesman Bryan Malenius told the Sentinel that the hospital cannot discharge a patient, even after their medical treatment is complete, unless the patient has a safe place to go. And in cases when that person is unable to make decisions for themselves and when no family steps in to help, the hospital recommends guardianship as a last resort.
Typically, the hospital asks the Department of Children and Families Services to step in, but it often declines, Malenius said. A DCF spokeswoman did not respond to questions from the Sentinel.
And waiting for a public guardian to be appointed can take months, leaving a professional guardian as the most expedient way to move patients from the hospital to a nursing home or other setting.
“Petitioning the court to appoint an emergency guardian is a last resort 100 percent of the time, after the state has declined assistance and extensive efforts to find family members or friends willing to fulfill this role,” Malenius said in an e-mail. “Even after a petition for guardianship has been filed, we continue to search for family or friends willing to serve as guardians.”
Fierle registered a company with the state called Geriatric Management Hospital Consultation in 2018, but it’s unclear if that’s the company she used to bill AdventHealth. Also unclear is whether she had other arrangements with other facilities.
The comptroller’s office found she inadvertently included bills she intended for the hospital in some court files. For example, in one case the auditors found a bill for the hospital where she was charging $120 an hour. That’s higher than the maximum of $65 an hour professional guardians are allowed to charge wards for her services under court rules.
The audit said Fierle should have disclosed her payment arrangement with AdventHealth to the court, but never did.
“If the fees are billed to Florida Hospital, this creates the potential for fees to be reimbursed multiple times or a separate financial arrangement exists,” the audit report said. “All financial arrangements should be reported to the court.”
That same audit also found other questionable transactions, such as Fierle using her wards’ money for services provided by a family member or people she knew.
In 2013, Fierle used her father’s auto shop Mickeys Place for Automotive Repair to fix a ward’s car. The Orlando shop is now closed and Fierle’s father, Michael Dobbins, could not be reached for comment.
Fierle hired Steve Richardson for services such as lawn maintenance and changing locks at wards’ houses despite not disclosing to the court their previous relationship. Fierle used to have legal authority over the property of Richardson’s mother, court records show. The comptroller’s report also noted Fierle is currently “the Trustee for a family trust where the service provider currently has an ownership interest in property with the Professional Guardian as Trustee.” Calls to Richardson were not returned.
In a state Department of Elder Affairs registration document filed with the court last year, Fierle listed “none” under the area to detail any employees she had.
But the audit reported that multiple employees were billing wards for services, though they weren’t registered as guardians with the state and so did not undergo the required background checks.
Guardianship is big business in Florida. But it’s not always so easy to find a guardian to take on some of the hardest cases.
The wards can be difficult or uncooperative because of severe mental illness or other health problems. It’s not unusual for the patients’ families to be in disagreement with or estranged from the ward.
One person familiar with Fierle’s work, who asked not to be identified because the person wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter, said she was known for taking on some of the most difficult cases.
In the July 11 hearing, Judge Thorpe and attorneys for the wards and Fierle alluded to how hard it can be to find enough guardians to take on people in need, according to the transcript.
“... Where are you going to find people to take these cases?” Harry Hackney, Fierle’s attorney, asked the judge when it became clear nearly 100 cases would be removed from Fierle.
“I mean, it’s a real problem,” Thorpe replied. “We don’t have that many [guardians].”
Thorpe also pointed out that public guardians, or those funded by the state who take on cases of people who are indigent, are limited to 40 cases at a time. But there is no limit for professional guardians.
Fierle, by some counts, had more than three times that many across multiple counties.
“We overloaded her,” Thorpe said.
Some families of wards told the Sentinel that Fierle was cordial when she first took on their cases, but then they often had limited contact with her.
Someone from Fierle’s office, not Fierle herself, would often be the point of contact with family members.
Christine Tibbetts Morrison, whose mother Connie Tibbetts was under Fierle’s care before dying in 2017, said one of Fierle’s assistants called to ask her how she felt about her mother receiving chemotherapy for multiple myeloma cancer.
Despite Tibbetts Morrison telling the assistant her mother was still capable of making that decision, Tibbetts did not receive cancer treatment.
In a statement through her attorney, Fierle said she called her ward’s daughter to discuss treatment and Tibbetts Morrison “agreed that aggressive treatment of her cancer should not be pursued under the circumstances,” a claim Tibbetts Morrison wholeheartedly denies.
“At first I was relieved,” Tibbetts Morrison said. “My mother was going to have a roof over her head, she was going to get the medical care she needed. It was better than being on the street. But something wasn’t right with this guardian.”
Fierle has kept a low profile in recent weeks, appearing in court only twice — most recently in Hillsborough County — with her long red hair pulled into a neat bun and sunglasses resting atop her head as she politely answered a judge’s questions. At three hearings within the past three weeks — in Seminole, Brevard and Volusia — she was a no-show.
On July 25, Fierle resigned from all her cases statewide.
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