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Bill Seeks To Stop 'Cockroaches' From Preying On Seniors

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A Senate panel on Thursday unanimously approved a bill aimed at protecting Florida seniors from predatory "professional guardians," described by one lawmaker as "cockroaches."

The bill (SB 1226), filed by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would expand the Statewide Public Guardianship Office at the Department of Elder Affairs, with an eye to tightening oversight of people who assume control of a senior citizens' finances.

A recent series by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune 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. Today, the number has grown to more than 440.

"Those little cracks in the law are allowing cockroaches to crawl through and take advantage of people who are elderly," Detert told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. "Let's face it. The elderly are today's invisible people, who are not given much credence when they complain."

The bill would charge the Department of Elder Affairs with certifying, overseeing and ---- if necessary --- investigating and disciplining professional guardians who abuse their trust. It would also create a registry of professional guardians in each judicial circuit.

Currently, Detert said, the Department of Elder Affairs is responsible for public guardians, who are assigned to indigent seniors, but there is little to stop unscrupulous "professional guardians" from charging exorbitant rates for services they provide and running through their wards' assets.

"When you are turning somebody's entire life over to a guardian, they have access to every asset that you have, and your own family is blocked from participating," Detert said.

Douglas Franks, who spoke in favor of the measure, said his mother, Ernestine, is a case in point.

Now 93, Ernestine Franks has lived in Pensacola all her life. She and her late husband, Charles, both worked at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and saved their money. Douglas said he and his two brothers agreed to a guardian for Ernestine in 2011 because they lived out of town and her health was becoming more of a concern.

However, he told the committee, the guardianship has cost his mother $1,000 per day since June 2012.

"It is over $1 million that my mom has spent," Franks said. "We're trying to bring awareness so people know what's going on and how this is a lucrative cottage industry."

Detert said the courts are so overwhelmed with foreclosures and other backlogged cases that they aren't able to investigate guardianship expenditures that are unreasonably large.

Her proposal comes as several other lawmakers also are offering measures aimed at curbing abusive guardianships.

On Tuesday, for instance, a bill by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Diaz de la Portilla chairs. The measure (SB 318) would require a hearing to be held before the appointment of an emergency temporary guardian.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, meanwhile, are sponsoring measures (SB 366/HB 5) that would require the reporting of incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of a ward by a guardian.

Detert said the Department of Elder Affairs estimates the cost of her proposal at $3 million for 40 full-time employees, which she thought was a little high.

"I think we can come to a middle ground with the department," Detert said. "I think we can work together and come up with a system that tightens up the good laws we already have."

The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

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