Monday, October 11, 2021

I-Team: Who tracks guardianship data? In Florida, no one

by Danielle DaRos

How many guardians are in the state of Florida?

How many people have been placed under their care?

How much money do they oversee?

We don't know. Investigators don't know. The task force charged with studying the state's broken guardianship system doesn't know.

In Florida, the simplest questions about guardianship are the hardest to answer. That's because our state lacks a centralized, statewide database keeping track of guardianship cases.

And that, some advocates say, is the first thing that needs to be fixed when overhauling the system, and cracking down on abuse.

"In today's day and age, I should be able to push a button and tell you exactly how many open, and on going cases there are," said Anthony Palmieri, Deputy Inspector General and Chief Guardianship Investigator for Palm Beach County.

He said all the information about guardianships you'd want to know are contained within individual case files, in separate counties and circuit court systems. Extracting that data and making sense of it all is no easy task.

"We were part of a high profile investigation of a guardian in Central Florida," Palmieri recalls. He said the judge asked how many wards this particular guardian was overseeing.

"It took me four days to figure out that number," he said. "Turned out she had 208 wards across 19 different counties. She was petitioning cases from the Panhandle, to Fort Myers."

One guardian amassing that many wards -- and control of their estates -- could have been a red flag if there was a central database keeping track.

Abuse in the guardianship system is well-documented. The CBS12 News I-Team has highlighted cases of guardians who have been caught stealing money from their wards, and isolating them from their families.

Guardianship, known in some states as conservatorship, is supposed to protect the elderly and disabled when they can no longer care for themselves. Judges can appoint a family member, or a professional guardian to oversee another person's decisions and money. Without proper oversight, bad actors in the system can take advantage of the people they are being paid to protect.

"Right now we have a lot of bad stories about guardians," Palmieri said. "But is that really reflective of the system as a whole? I don't know the answer to that."

Palmieri, who is the Vice-Chair of Florida's Guardianship Improvement Task Force, said the first and most important step in fixing the guardianship system is to create a statewide database to collect basic information.

Palm Beach County has started its own guardianship database where guardians upload financial reports and keep track of expenditures.

"It's a very powerful tool," Palmieri said. "Not only does it track all financial information, it also collects demographic information such as the age of the person under guardianship, their gender, their alleged incapacity, who petitioned, who is their guardian, do they have a family guardian, professional guardian, public guardian?"

Right now, the system in Palm Beach County is voluntary. Members of the task force received a demonstration and talked about using it as a model for a statewide database.

Some states, like Minnesota, are already maintaining a centralized record-keeping system.

The I-Team spoke to the managers in charge of it and saw how it works.

Jamie Majerus, Branch Audit Manager, said the Minnesota system not only keeps track of guardians and conservators across 87 counties in the state, but it can also identify outliers in expenditures and raise red flags for auditors.

She said since the state implemented the software, bad actors have been put on notice.

"The percentage of the number of bad audits have gone down," she said. "We feel the conservators are doing better. They are more educated. They know we are watching."

Members of Florida's task force have recommended the creation of a statewide database.

But there is some concern among task force members about it, specifically attorneys who work on guardianship cases.

Shannon Miller, an attorney who sits on the elder law certification committee of the Florida Bar, said she worries that putting all this financial information in one place, where software is constantly monitoring it, could be an invasion of privacy.

"This is very problematic," Miller told the task force in a recent meeting. "When you give your private information, it's just like Siri or the Internet or when big brother has information -- what you have done is exposed all your private information."

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