Last year, Ruth Meyer's "round-the-clock" nursing care cost $115,166.
Most of that went to Betty and Frank Gerren, the two nurses' aides with whom she lived in their Clearwater home. Together, the Gerrens were paid $1,348 a week to feed, clothe, bathe and care for Meyer, an 86-year-old who is bedridden and barely responsive. The Gerrens also were paid thousands more for food, electricity, and after-hours "relief" care.
The money was paid by Kathryn "Kris" Sanders, Meyer's court-appointed guardian. She is also Betty Gerren's former business partner.
This doesn't sit well with Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick, who pressured Sanders into resigning as guardian last week. Guardians are appointed by judges to handle the financial and living arrangements of people too incapacitated to run their own lives.
The judge didn't like the amount of money being spent. And he didn't like what was going on with four other wards of the court who were living under the Gerrens' care. Meyer and another ward were living in the Gerrens' home. Three other wards were living in an unlicensed adult congregate living facility the couple owns nearby. All were ordered to be moved.
And late Friday, after Penick suspected that Gerren temporarily ran off with two of the wards, he signed orders requiring Sanders, Gerren and another guardian to appear before him and explain why they should not be stripped of all 18 of their guardianships and be held in contempt of court.
Gerren said she just took the wards for an afternoon outing as she had done before.
"We haven't killed anybody," she said. "He yanked Mrs. Meyer out of my home like it was an abuse case," she said. "If he feels we're in cahoots with the guardian or something is wrong, then charge me. But don't destroy me. This is unfair."
Sanders acknowledges paying Gerren thousands of dollars for taking care of Ruth Meyer. But it bought great care. And with an estate worth more than $700,000, Meyer could afford it.
"Ruth does not respond well to strangers at all," Sanders testified. "It is my opinion that nurses at a nursing home would give up on her, and they would have a feeding tube inserted."
Besides, moving her ward to a nursing home would be traumatic, Sanders said. "The result would be imminent death."
Penick acted after a court investigator conducted a sweeping review of about two dozen guardianships involving Sanders, Betty Gerren, and two other professional guardians, Patricia K. Miller and Terry Deeds. Miller and Deeds had wards living in the Gerrens' group home.
Among other things, Penick said he is concerned that the four guardians have used their associations for financial gain.
Sanders, 42, is the past president of the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida State Guardianship Association, one of two local guardianship associations. Gerren, 54, is the incoming secretary of the chapter. Deeds and Miller also have held leadership roles.
Sanders and Gerren incorporated a guardianship practice _ Gerren, Sanders and Associates _ in January and invited other area guardians to share office space. Deeds took them up on the offer before the guardianship practice eventually folded. Miller was not associated with the business.
Sanders said she placed Ruth Meyer, her 86-year-old ward, in Betty Gerren's home long before the two women ever went into business together. And during the three years the Gerrens cared for Meyer, at least two geriatric specialists reported to the court that Meyer was thriving.
Ronni Meltzer was certainly convinced. Meltzer is Meyer's cousin in south Dade County. She has steadfastly maintained that family members do not care how much it costs _ they want Meyer to receive the very best care.
"She was in a home-like setting, getting constant attention by a caregiver," Meltzer said.
Hamden Baskin, a lawyer Penick appointed to investigate the guardianship, didn't dispute the quality of care Meyer was receiving. He questioned why it was costing her estate so much to pay for it.
For example, Meyer's assets were paying Betty Gerren $900 per week in salary. Frank Gerren was paid an additional $448 per week. The estate paid extra for Meyer's food, electricity, laundry, a home care worker for the weekends, and hundreds of dollars in spending money so Meyer, who was nearly comatose, could travel with the Gerrens to visit their relatives up north.
"The guardian, through her connections with Frank Gerren and Betty Gerren, placed the ward in a private setting, without the authority of (the) court, at a rate which, frankly, will shock the conscience of the court," Baskin wrote.
Penick agreed. Thursday, he ordered Meyer's new guardian to move her immediately from the Gerren's home. But when a nurse arrived at 2:15 p.m. to check on her, Meyer, the Gerrens and another ward were gone. So was their recreational vehicle. By about 6 p.m., the new guardian's lawyer called Clearwater police.
About an hour later, the Gerren's RV returned. Betty Gerren acknowledges that court officials at one point suggested that she and her husband had absconded with Meyer and another ward. Sanders insisted Gerren only took the two women to the beach.
Penick, on the other hand, maintains the Gerrens intended to hide Meyer, hoping her relatives in Miami might secure an order from another judge delaying her removal from the Gerrens' home.
"They were going to take the wards and protect them until all this gets straightened out," the judge said.
Sanders describes that accusation as "outrageous."
"With what money was she going to run?" Sanders said. "The judge practically cut her off at the knees as far as income is concerned. . . . The woman doesn't have any money."
In Ruth Meyer's case, how much the Gerrens were paid was at the heart of the controversy. But for the other three wards overseen by guardians Terry Deeds and Patricia Miller, the questions involved judgment, not money.
In the fall of 1993, Frank and Betty Gerren bought Our Lady of Perpetual Help, an adult congregate living facility at 2064 Highland Ave. in Clearwater, a few doors away from their home. They renamed it Gerren's Country Inn. Within several months, Deeds' wards, Georgia Meyer and Frank Beard, and Miller's ward, Janet Goldie, all were placed in the home. (Georgia Meyer is not related to Ruth Meyer).
Penick has not accused the Gerrens of mistreating the three group home residents or billing them excessively.
But he has questioned why Deeds and Miller allowed their wards to live at the adult home.
Gerren's Country Inn is not licensed to operate by the state. The Gerrens are giving all three wards mind-altering psychotropic drugs even though the Gerrens lack credentials under state law to give such drugs, court records state.
And Frank Gerren, co-owner of the facility, has a criminal history including arrests for indecent exposure, driving under the influence and grand larceny.
"I got a real problem here," Penick said at a recent hearing involving Deeds. How could he allow Beard and Meyer to continue to reside in an unlicensed group home? he asked.
Deeds said she thought the Gerrens' group home was operating under the license of the former owner.
The small facility was the perfect setting for one of the wards, Deeds said. The other ward's son was "very happy" with his father's care, she said.
Miller noted she never placed her ward in the unlicensed home. The woman was living there when Miller became guardian.
Like Sanders and Gerren, Miller must appear before Penick Nov. 7 to defend herself against his accusations of "interfering with the judicial processes" and "neglecting the well-being" of their wards. According to Penick's orders, the three women can be stripped of their guardianships or held in contempt of court if they fail to satisfy him that they behaved properly.
"This judge has gone off the deep end," said Miller, who denies that she's reaping any financial gain from her marginal associations with Sanders and Gerren. Miller said she can't collect any fees from seven of her 10 wards because they have no money.
"I basically take care of indigent people," she said. "My husband makes a decent living. I am able to do this because I like to help people. I'm sure as hell not in it for money."