A bill aimed at better protecting elderly Floridians from unscrupulous guardians is speeding toward passage in the state Legislature.
The House on Tuesday took up the measure (SB 232), filed by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and could give final approval as early as Wednesday. Senators this month voted unanimously to approve the measure, after a similar bill died during the chaotic end of the 2015 legislative session.
The proposal would lead to the Department of Elder Affairs certifying and overseeing professional guardians --- and disciplining those who abuse their trust.
"In extreme cases, the wards are sometimes prevented from regaining their competency and remain, in effect, prisoners of guardians," House sponsor Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said.
Under the bill, the Statewide Public Guardianship Office at the Department of Elder Affairs would expand to become the Office of Public and Professional Guardians. It would establish standards for both public and private guardians, receive and investigate complaints and penalize guardians who breach the standards.
If approved by the House, the bill would go to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. Detert said the bill would vault Florida into a leadership role nationally in protecting seniors from guardian abuse.
"We are hearing from everybody, and it's a nationwide problem," she said. "Florida had the strongest laws in the nation, and we have all of these abuses. All of the other states are even worse than us, and there is nowhere to turn. They are now calling Florida to ask for advice."
Detert cited a December 2014 series by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which found that while Florida has an efficient system of identifying and caring for fragile elders, "tapping their assets is a growth business." In 2003, there were 23 registered professional guardians on Florida. By 2014, the number had grown to more than 440 --- an increase of more than 1,800 percent in 11 years.
Private professional guardians often serve wealthy people, whereas public guardians serve incapacitated people who don't have anybody willing and able to serve as guardians. Currently, the state has a more heavily regulated system of oversight for the public guardians.
Private guardians typically enter the picture when the children of seniors have disputes.
Detert said private guardians can sell off their wards' assets to pay themselves --- even to fight the wards' grown children in court.
"Your family appoints a guardian to give you a little bit of help, and that guardian has the power to take over your entire life, your health care, your finances," she said. "These are not people who are living in nursing homes. These are people that are living in their own home.”
The problem came to Detert's attention via a constituent, Julie London Ferguson, who had lost the right to make decisions for her mother, Marise London, to a guardian.
Ferguson said Detert told her, "That could happen to me."
Detert advised Ferguson to go to the media, which she did. Marise London --- an artist who had run a Sarasota gallery for 26 years --- was among those featured in the Herald-Tribune series.
"All of Sarasota was backing Mom," Ferguson said.
Now, as of Jan. 13, London is back in her home. Her daughter said she is recovering from the ordeal, happy to be with family and in her own home.
"I believe with all my heart that if it weren't for Senator Detert, Mom would still be in a guardianship," Ferguson said. "The wheels of justice grind slowly, but when these people are in their 80s, we don't have that time."