TALLAHASSEE — Last year, a coalition of Floridians traveled to Tallahassee to explain how their elderly relatives had been victimized by court-appointed guardians.
Lawmakers got the message.
The Florida Senate on Tuesday passed legislation changing the way guardians are appointed and explicitly prohibiting the abuse, exploitation or neglect of an elderly ward (HB 5).
The bill is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk. It is widely expected to become law.
State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation in the House, said he had heard the "horror stories (from people) across the state who felt like their loved ones wound up isolated with everything taken from them and little they could do about it."
"The reforms in this bill help to improve how guardians are appointed, better protect the wishes and rights of an incapacitated person once a guardian assumes power over them and clarify the responsibilities of guardians," Rodríguez said.
Sam Sugar, a Miami physician who founded the advocacy group Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, called the measure "an excellent first step."
"But comprehensive reform will require the participation of the Supreme Court of Florida," Sugar wrote in an email to the Times/Herald. "There must be consequences when those in charge of enforcing protections fail to follow the laws of the state and instead subvert them and abuse the vulnerable under the guise of 'the best interests' of ward."
Under Florida law, judges can appoint guardians for elderly people who cannot manage their own finances.
Guardians must receive 40 hours of training and are paid for their services.
In recent years, the number of professional guardians has jumped from 10 to 465, according to the state Department of Elder Affairs. But the system has also come under intense scrutiny. A December investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that some guardians had removed their wards from their homes and sold off their belongings.
In response to the newspaper series — and complaints from constituents like Sugar, who engaged in a costly legal battle for control of his mother-in-law's affairs — lawmakers filed proposals this year aimed at overhauling the state's guardianship laws.
Among those that gained traction: the proposal by Rodríguez and Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, sponsored a similar bill in the Senate.
The proposal won unanimous support of the House this month. It passed out of the Senate in a 40-0 vote on Tuesday.
The Senate also voted 40-0 in support of a separate proposal to create a new Office of Public and Professional Guardians, which would conduct investigations and take disciplinary action when necessary (SB 1226). But the bill died Tuesday because the House decided to recess early.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, blamed the ongoing budget battle for the bill's death.
"I'm afraid this is another casualty of the war," she said.
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kmcgrory.