The Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously backed the expansion of the state’s regulation of guardians who care for frail elders, including allowing the state Department of Elderly Affairs to discipline private guardians who violate care standards.
At the same time, a similar measure cleared its final House committee, meaning the bill is now ready for a floor vote in the House.
“We all recognize there is a problem,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who has called the bill (SB 232) her top priority for her final regular session in the Legislature.
The measure follows up on a law that Detert helped pass last year to curb abuses in the adult guardianship system, including regulations on public guardians, who are appointed to care for incapacitated seniors who are poor.
The new bills extend a series of regulations and state oversight to private guardians, who now must have a background screening and meet certain training requirements. It would include a system for investigating complaints and disciplining private guardians.
“It left a whole segment of the elderly open for abuse and they have been targeted, especially wealthy older women,” Detert said, adding it is a problem not only in Florida but across the nation.
She said Florida would have “the strongest laws” in the country if the bill becomes law as anticipated. “I know you will agree that protecting the elderly is one of our top priorities,” Detert said.
In a tribute to Detert, the 39 other senators agreed to become co-sponsors of the legislation as it heads to the House.
Earlier in the day, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously backed a bill (HB 403), sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, that would expand the Department of Elderly Affairs (DOEA) power to monitor and regulate public guardians to include private guardians.
All the guardians would be required to register and would be regulated by the DOEA’s renamed Office of Public and Professional Guardians.
“Under this bill the office can investigate allegations of abuse and fraud and take disciplinary action when warranted,” Ahern said.
Ahern cited the press reports of abuses of elderly Floridians as one of the motivations for the legislation. The Herald-Tribune’s December 2014 series, “The Kindness of Strangers,” highlighted cases of frail seniors who had been taken advantage of by unregulated private guardians.
“We don’t want to read another story about someone who has been appointed by the courts and given complete autonomy over a person’s life and estate and uses that position to take advantage of the person they were entrusted to protect,” Ahern said.
The House committee also heard from Doug Franks, who has fought to remove his mother from a private guardianship in Pensacola.
“This bill is going to put some oversight on this where before we had no oversight on professional guardians,” Franks said, adding he wanted to eventually see stronger laws, including criminal penalties for guardians who abuse their trust.
Under the current law, Franks said it is difficult for family members to “get their parents back because once they’re in guardianship, professional guardianship, they can’t get out.”
“It’s not like foster care where you get a chance to get your children out. When they’re in guardianship, forget it,” Franks said.
The legislation has the support of the AARP and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. Detert said the legislation also has the backing of Gov. Rick Scott and DOEA Secretary Samuel Verghese.
The bill provides $822,000 in funding for the DOEA’s expanded guardian office, which will include six full-time employees.
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Guardianship bill gets unanimous support