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How two nodding women prompted a hard look at Florida’s elder guardianship system Date: 12/11/14

Barbara Peters Smith
Barbara Peters Smith

By Barbara Peters Smith

This series that looks at the insular world of adult guardianship began for me more than two years ago, at a fairly lame seminar on elder fraud.

As attorneys and officials on the panel spoke about how relatives prey on older Floridians to separate them from their money, I saw two sweet-looking ladies nodding vigorously at each other. 

They were sisters-in-law, and in June 2013 we published the story of their unsuccessful legal struggle to rescue their husband and brother, a former county judge, from a guardianship they believed was depleting his finances and his health. The attorneys and guardians I spoke with insisted that this case was an outlier in a system that works well to protect vulnerable elders. Then I started to get calls and emails from others who felt trapped and frustrated by this same well-intended system.

Their stories were convoluted, inconsistent and hard to verify, given the confidentiality of court documents on guardianship. They involved dysfunctional families, protagonists suffering from dementia and in some cases criminal records that made credibility a problem, to say the least. I spent weeks looking into cases, to find most of them unusable from a storytelling standpoint. And there were no reliable data, even on the national level, that could give me a sense of scope.

And yet a pattern emerged that was hard to ignore.

This pattern suggested a system that siphons enough money from wealthy wards to underwrite the costs of indigent cases; that involves a small pool of judges, attorneys and guardians in an inevitable conflict of interest; that thrusts bewildered elders and their families into an adversarial legal process they don’t understand until it’s too late.

I made calls to legal experts I trusted, who told me I wasn’t wrong, and pointed me to the court documents to scrutinize, including fee petitions. One problem was that in my county, court files can only be viewed from terminals in the public access room at the clerk of court’s office. This room became my second home.  Another problem was that the recordkeeping was inconsistent. Some cases appeared to include all fee petitions; others were hit-and-miss.

So this project came back around to the stories in the case files, and an old-school process of talking to as many people I could until a preponderance of evidence piled up.

One break came when my supportive editor, Victor Hull, convinced our newspaper to send me to the World Congress on Adult Guardianship in Arlington, Va. The speakers there taught me that this was not just a “bad actors” story, but a fundamental question of civil rights.

Another came when a woman named Linda Bous called our newsroom on a Saturday afternoon, and found a sympathetic listener in Scott Carroll, the editor on duty. She was living in a locked assisted-living facility, she said, and her guardian wouldn’t let her leave.

I had heard this before, but promised Scott I would check it out. Her plight provided the urgency that propelled us toward publication.


 

Barbara Peters Smith (@BarbaraPSmith) writes about aging and health issues for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida, focusing on the major shifts occurring as the U.S. baby boom generation reaches retirement age.