Andrei Girenkov watched the movie in spurts, unable to stomach it all at once.
“It was really painful,” the Tampa lawyer said. “I found the characters too realistic, and I found them disgusting.”
Girenkov was referring to I Care A Lot, a new Netflix film that follows the fictional ventures of a court-appointed guardian who targets wealthy seniors and convinces the court to deem them incapacitated, opening the door for her to profit off their assets and pay herself guardianship fees while isolating them from friends and family.
It’s one of two films that have recently shined a spotlight on guardianships, a system that aims to protect seniors and the vulnerable by appointing someone to manage their finances, housing and healthcare with court oversight. The New York Times recent documentary Framing Britney Spears explores the 39-year-old pop star’s own entanglement with guardianship, called conservatorship in her home state of California.
For guardianship watchdogs and reform advocates in Florida and beyond — many of whom say they were inspired by their own troubling run-ins with the system — the movies give them new hope of reforming a flawed system they’ve spent years drawing attention to.
Tampa Bay has seen its own troubling allegations. A former professional guardian from Riverview moved a woman into assisted living after a real estate agent who wanted the woman’s beachfront property successfully petitioned for guardianship against the wishes of the woman’s family. That same guardian was later arrested after Pinellas deputies say she stole more than $500,000 from a man she had power-of-attorney over.
‘A gift from the gods’
For reform advocates, I Care A Lot in particular “was really a game-changer,” said Sam Sugar, a doctor-turned co-founder of South Florida’s Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships after he said his mother-in-law was ensnared in a fraudulent guardianship.
While the second half was mostly “Hollywood craziness,” he said, the first half was true to the system.
”In terms of detailing the guardianship system, I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he said.
Sugar said he’s gotten scores of phone calls in the last few weeks from people who recognize their own experiences in the film, which stars Rosamund Pike as the conniving Marla Grayson. Grayson works with doctors, lawyers, nursing home administrators and other players in the system to strip seniors of their independence, then defraud them.
The film’s creator, J Blakeson, said in an interview with Netflix his inspiration for the film “started when I saw news stories about real-life predatory guardians who game the system and exploit their wards.” And Pike, in accepting her Golden Globe for Best Actress, thanked “America’s broken legal system for making it possible to make stories like this.”
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Sugar called her acknowledgment “a gift from the gods.”
“It’s a big problem that’s really flown under the radar for a long time,” he said.
The Spears documentary, too, has sparked conversation, notably from Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, the Panhandle Republican who cited it in his call for a congressional hearing on conservatorships.
“Ms. Spears is not alone,” Gaetz and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan wrote in a letter requesting the hearing. “There are countless other Americans stripped of their freedoms by others with little recourse.”
‘The end of her American dream’
Girenkov, the Tampa lawyer, said his familiarity with guardianship’s flaws comes from the story of his friend and client, Gedi Pakalnis.
Pakalnis had for 15 years lived with a relative he considered his great aunt, Genyte Dirse, who owned a motel on St. Pete Beach and lived at a house next door.
Real estate agent Diana Sames tried to buy her beachfront properties and Dirse turned her down, according to a WFTS-Ch. 28 investigation into the 2018 case. Soon after Dirse sold one of the properties to her nephew for under market value, the agent identified herself to the court as a neighbor and filed a petition to have Dirse declared incapacitated, the TV station reported.
The court sided with Sames and appointed a former professional guardian named Traci Hudson to manage her affairs. Dirse was moved from her beach house into an assisted living facility. Pakalnis previously told the Tampa Bay Times he didn’t know where she was until he saw her in a photo on the website for Patrick Manor. Dirse contracted the coronavirus there and died May 5, 2020, at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
It was a devastating end for Pakalnis, who said he hasn’t seen either movie but, based on the trailers, hopes they expose the dark side of guardianships such as what he experienced.
“(Dirse’s) life was totally destroyed by this guardianship,” Pakalnis said, “and this unfortunately was the end of her American Dream.”
Dirse’s family challenged the guardianship in court. The guardian, Hudson, is suing Pakalnis over the property sale, claiming it was executed under undue influence. But she has other legal problems.
In 2019, she was arrested on a charge of exploitation of the elderly after a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigation found that she stole more than $500,000 from a man she had power-of-attorney over, another legal surrogacy process that has far less oversight than a court-appointed guardianship. Hudson pleaded not guilty, and her criminal case is ongoing.
At the time of her arrest, she was a court-appointed guardian on about 30 cases in the Tampa Bay area. She was removed from all of them and resigned from her job as a professional guardian. Her defense attorney previously told the Times that there was no evidence of malfeasance in her guardianship cases.
‘She’s an evil genius’
Another Florida case that rocked the system involved a former professional guardian named Rebecca Fierle. She was overseeing 450 guardianships when she resigned in 2019 amid a criminal investigation and allegations that she signed do-not-resuscitate orders for several wards.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents arrested her last year on charges of aggravated abuse of an elderly person and neglect of an elderly person stemming from one of those allegations.
In May 2019, according to the agency, Fierle told doctors to cap the feeding tube of 75-year-old Steven Stryker, who stated multiple times that he wanted to live. He died four days later at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.
Fierle pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial, according to court records.
This month, the Orange County comptroller released an audit that found Fierle received about $4 million in fees that weren’t approved by the court, payed herself at a rate far higher than what the court considered reasonable and double-billed some clients. She also maintained a web of business relationships that weren’t disclosed to the court that created conflicts of interest.
“I consider Rebecca Fierle a genius,” Sugar said. “She’s an evil genius, but she’s one of the smartest women I’ve ever heard of because she’s used every single page in the playbook.”
Florida’s guardianship system hasn’t gone without reform. In 2016, the state formed the Office of Public & Professional Guardians for tighter oversight. Last year, state lawmakers passed a sweeping reform bill that mandates court approval for do-not-resuscitate orders, requires petitions for guardianship to have more background information and weeds out potential conflicts of interest.
Hillary Hogue, a Naples guardianship reform advocate, hopes the calls by Gaetz and Jordan could spur national reform — and that I Care A Lot will continue educating people.
“We don’t get many things fighting the corruption in guardianship situations,” Hogue said, “so it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s mainstream.’
“It’s nice to have a little boost, because it gets tough.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.