Ignited by the movement to free Britney Spears from her conservatorship, the issues and challenges within guardianship systems across the nation became uncharacteristically mainstream this past year. A week seldom passes without a new article highlighting the personal adversity of victims — both individuals under guardianship and their family members — who have suffered or are enduring hardships within the system.
As Clerks of Court in Florida, we have a role in processing and auditing guardianships. The courts maintain oversight of guardianship proceedings to ensure the overall health, safety and well-being of individuals under guardianship, and clerks monitor these proceedings on behalf of the courts. As an administrative function, Clerks of Court also audit annual reporting on individuals under guardianship, which include any property submitted to the courts, and advise on the audit findings.
While most guardians work in good faith, there are far too many cases of guardians abusing their power. The most notorious example of abuse is the case of a former guardian in Central Florida named Rebecca Fierle.
Fierle oversaw hundreds of individuals who were entrusted by the court to her care. In 2019, she was arrested and charged with abuse and neglect related to the death of an individual under her guardianship for whom she had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order for without the court’s consent. It was later discovered she had collected $4 million in fees not approved by the court system and is accused of extravagantly overcharged clients for her guardianship services.
There are glaring problems within the Florida guardianship system that cause this unnecessary pain, and these challenges within the system need to be addressed. Last year, Clerks of Court and various stakeholder agencies and organizations with a direct interest or involvement with Florida’s guardianship system joined together to form the Guardianship Improvement Task Force to put forward recommendations for the Florida Legislature and Florida courts to consider as ways to improve the system. I served as the group’s chairperson.
Members drew upon their professional and personal life experiences to enrich the work of the task force, which facilitated meaningful discussion by membership and inspired passionate contributions from the public at each meeting. With the objective of providing effective feedback for the Legislature’s use prior to the 2022 session, the task force held to a quick timeline for completion. In less than four months, over the course of two in-person meetings and seven virtual meetings, we identified and discussed dozens of topics of concern involving Florida’s guardianship system.
Ultimately, the task force voted and agreed upon 10 specific recommendations for consideration by the Florida Legislature and Florida courts, which are elaborated on in the final report available at GuardianshipImprovementTaskForce.com.
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Without question, the most significant issue this task force discussed and agreed upon was a means to improve what data is available to document problems within the guardianship system in Florida. Even basic information such as the number of people under guardianship, the number of guardians, how many cases each guardian has, how much money and property are under the control of guardians, and who the individuals are under guardianship, is not readily available.
I personally know of one egregious case where a guardian was removed from their eight guardianships in Pinellas County for misconduct, yet they were appointed to a guardianship examining committee in another circuit in the state. This happened because the judge had no way of knowing they were removed from their former role in Pinellas. Establishing a secure, transparent statewide database will help us uncover the flaws within the system, allow us to make better decisions, provide additional accountability, increase transparency, and lead to better protections for people within the guardianship system.
The recommendation for a statewide data collection system is captured in House Bill 1349 by Rep. Linda Chaney and Senate Bill 1710 by Sen. Jennifer Bradley. While we hope the other recommendations outlined in our report will lead to tangible future changes to the guardianship system, this legislation will have an immediate and substantial positive impact.
While there are many important issues for the Legislature to consider this session, few are more critical than improving protections for our most vulnerable populations. With the introduction of this bill, legislators can take the first steps in fixing Florida’s broken guardianship system. If you care about protecting individuals under guardianship and want to see Florida build a better system, I urge you to call, write or email your state senator and representative.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “A society is judged not by how it takes care of its most gifted individuals, but those who are the most vulnerable.” The Guardianship Improvement Task Force has done a tremendous amount of legwork to get us here today, and we’ve provided a worthy roadmap for corrective action to take better care of children, seniors, and individuals with special needs. Please support this legislation because we know it will make a difference.
Ken Burke is the Pinellas County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller. He led Guardianship Improvement Task Force.