A Southwest Florida lawmaker is renewing a push to better protect elderly Floridians from unscrupulous guardians who take control of seniors' assets.
The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee this week approved a bill (SB 232), filed by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, that would charge the Department of Elder Affairs with certifying and overseeing professional guardians --- and disciplining those who abuse their trust.
Detert told the committee that professional guardians are a growth business in Florida but are lightly regulated.
She cited a series in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which reported in December 2014 that the number of registered professional guardians statewide had grown 1,800 percent in 11 years.
"There are predators," Detert said. "They have kind of crawled through a crack in the law."
Private professional guardians come into play, for example, in circumstances where families have disputes between seniors' children. The guardians can earn $100 an hour to open mail, make appointments and pay bills --- even to be present when the children came to visit.
"When you think of the power you are giving to a guardian," Detert said. "The power to make your medical decisions, to put you on drugs, to spend your money (and) sign your checkbook."
Private guardians often serve wealthy people, Detert said. The state also has a more heavily regulated system of public guardians who serve incapacitated people who don't have anybody willing and able to serve as guardians.
Detert's bill has support from the office of Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock, who was represented at the Senate committee meeting by Deputy Clerk Anthony Palmieri.
Since 2011, Palmieri said, the office has investigated more than 800 elder-guardianship cases, identifying "more than $4 million in unsubstantiated disbursements, missing assets and fraud" in Palm Beach County. There have been two arrests.
"Many clerks' offices throughout the state are auditing and investigating guardianships because of this very important legislation," Palmieri said.
Also in 2011, Palm Beach County started Florida's --- and possibly the nation's --- first hotline for elder-guardianship fraud.
Bock said in an interview that she'd gotten the idea to review private guardianships after seeing an uptick in their numbers during the economic recession. She had also noted that guardianship laws had been largely unchanged for decades at that point.
"It wasn't on anyone's radar screen, even though Florida has the fastest-growing elderly population per capita of any state in the United States," Bock said.
Last spring, however, Gov. Rick Scott signed a measure by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, requiring advance notice before hearings on the appointment of emergency temporary guardians.
It would also allow the mediation of guardianship disputes among family members and require the reporting of incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of wards by guardians.
Detert's new bill will be considered during the 2016 legislative session, which starts in January. A similar bill unanimously cleared the Senate during the 2015 session, but died when the House adjourned three days early. House leaders had objected to the initial $3 million cost of the measure, which Detert got down to less than $1 million.
The analysis of her new bill notes that approximately 456 guardians would be regulated, but it does not show a projected cost.
Detert said she'd recruited House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, to her cause, while Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, will return as the House sponsor.
"I've spoken to Chair Corcoran, and he is supportive," she said. "Rep. Ahern is doing the bill in the House, and we expect a happy conclusion this year."