PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – In the last two weeks, Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez has fielded calls into the hotline related to suspected guardian abuse. They are from people who claim a court appointed professional guardian is abusing an elderly relative's rights, health and finances. It turns out this is a statewide problem, and now lawmakers in Tallahassee have responded.
This week, the Florida Senate passed a bill (HB 5) to begin overhauling how guardians are appointed and aimed at prohibiting abuse, exploitation and neglect of an elderly ward. The bill, if signed by Governor Rick Scott, would become law on July 1, 2015.
"When someone has become incapacitated, they're in a vulnerable position, and a guardian can have considerable power over them," state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, said. "Although I have not directly come across abuse by guardians in my work, like my colleagues, I see the potential for abuse and hear the horror stories across the state who feel like their loved ones, mostly elderly parents, wound up isolated with everything taken from them and little they could do about it. The reforms in HB 5 will help improve how guardians are appointed, better protect the wishes and rights of the incapacitated person and clarify the responsibilities of guardians."
Miami physician Sam Sugar, who founded the advocacy group Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, told Local 10 News in an interview earlier this month, "The mantra of the guardianship program is litigate, medicate and take the estate."
Sugar said courts are too willing to take undocumented testimony from lawyers whose main goal is to get an emergency temporary guardianship and take control of the elderly person's assets.
"The minute that happens the game is over," Sugar said.
He stated the ultimate goal "is the diversion of inter-generational transfer of wealth from one generation to another into the pockets of this racket, and it is a racket."
Sugar said it could easily happen in any family. Typically, after an emergency guardianship hearing, a guardian known to the judge is appointed.
"Ultimately the rape of estate," Sugar said.
Strongman sales, reverse mortgages, specialty referrals with appraisals that make no sense. The elderly person's assets are sold undervalued to friends of the guardian, leaving those protected by guardianship penniless.
Applicants for professional guardianship need to complete a 40 hour course with exam. A high school diploma is also required and the guardian must have no felony convictions or bankruptcy filings. After that, guardians are eligible to retain clients.
WEB EXTRA: Becoming a guardian
"These people hang out at hospitals, nursing homes ALFs, senior centers anywhere vulnerable elderly persons can find themselves," Sugar said.
In some cases, Sugar said, the elderly are unaware that guardianship has been applied for. They receive a knock on the door noticing them that a court hearing is taking place, sometimes the very next day, leaving them less than 24 hours to prepare or find a lawyer. Once placed in guardianship getting a loved one out of guardianship is difficult.
"It's harder than going to the moon," Sugar said.
Sugar said guardianship is a $3.6 billion a year industry in Florida. In 2003, according to the Department of Elder Affairs, there were 23 certified for profit guardians in Florida. That number has grown to 460 this year so far.
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