TALLAHASSEE, FL. - Florida's guardianship system is terribly broken and it took a slightly rogue move--which ended up making the 5 o'clock news--to finally get a meeting with leadership.
After an interview with Mike Vasilinda of Capitol News Service, the day's schedule was fairly open. Our team of advocates, who had driven from across Florida to participate in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on January 28th, was dispersing to head home. Fellow advocate Doug Franks and I were the only two left. Before leaving for Tallahassee, I had reached out to the offices of Governor DeSantis, Secretary Prudom, Carol Carr of the Ombudsman program and others, but once again was not satisfied with the responses and had no set meeting. On January 26, 2020, I sent an Open Letter to Governor DeSantis once again requesting assistance.
Ever since my aunt, Dr. Lillie Sykes White, was abducted on August 30, 2016, I had been contacting all levels of Florida leadership for assistance but to no avail. Governor Ron DeSantis was the congressman in Aunt Lillie's district at that time and did not help. The complaint I filed with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs went nowhere. It seemed like Florida leadership was waiting for Aunt Lillie to die so the "problem" would go away. Now, Aunt Lillie has been in isolation away from her chosen family and life for 1275 days. That is torture, unconstitutional and a human rights violation.
No one in leadership seems to care that Aunt Lillie is being treated like a human trafficking victim--a modern-day slave.
Doug and I were hungry so we walked out on the Capitol Courtyard to find some food. The Florida State Capitol was full of seniors and advocates from across the state for Senior Day 2020. That morning I had prayed to be in the right place at the right time and that's exactly what happened. Doug looked up and said, "That's Secretary Prudom!" The Secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs was finishing remarks on the steps of the old Capitol.
Suddenly, Doug was in the middle of the Courtyard with rain coming down shouting at the Secretary, "What about guardianships? What about guardianships?" Before I could really think about it, I was shouting alongside him, "My aunt has been in forced isolation for four years and no one in leadership has helped. Florida is not safe for seniors," and other things. It was definitely a moment to remember. I think the spirit of my civil rights activist father, who died of Alzheimer's Disease, came upon me.
Sometimes you have to get creative to be heard.
The seniors on either side of us seemed very interested in what we were saying. Many were encouraging us to "speak up" and "say what's on your mind." There was one older African-American woman who gave me a "go girl." The officials at the top of the Capitol stairs were clearly disturbed by this unexpected addition to their program. Although Senior Day is meant to be a forum to highlight key issues in the elder community, I doubt they meant in this way.
I have participated in protests before, but this was my first impromptu one... and it produced results. After a few minutes, there was a small group of people around us including Representative Scott Plakon. We didn't know this at the time, but the Governor was supposed to make remarks next. It seemed they needed to find a way to "calm us down" and move us out so that could happen.
Eddie Thompson, the Legislative Assistant to Rep. Plakon, kindly gave us his information and told us to stop by the office when the program ended. We agreed. Doug and I were still hungry so we started walking around to the various information booths. People kept stopping to ask what we had been shouting. We handed out the Anatomy of an Involuntary Guardianship framework and answered questions.
Perhaps the "powers that be" didn't want us talking with too many people because in short order Doug and I were invited to a meeting with Secretary Prudom, Rep. Plakon, Thompson and a couple others. Sitting in the old Supreme Court room, we discussed Aunt Lillie's case, Doug's mother Ernestine and broader problems with the guardianship system in Florida and nationwide. Rep. Plakon encouraged us to be involved in the legislative process. Doug and I both have been, even attending Senate Hearings in D.C. - but it's a slow process and could be "too little, too late" for my aunt.
We believe they heard us and may have been a little surprised at how easily and viciously guardianship laws can be manipulated. We talked about the Ombudsman program, which falls under the Florida Department of Elder Affairs but is apparently independent from the Secretary. I had spoken with Michael Phillips and Lisa Dale previously and it seemed they were going to open an investigation to gain access to my aunt. However, when I followed up, I was told it was "stalled in legal." The Secretary didn't know why that would happen. Now, I will try again.
The Secretary explained what was within his direct powers. He suggested that I file a new complaint against the guardian who abducted my aunt and he ensured that his new Director, Chante Jones, would expedite the review of the case. The previous complaint with the Office of Public and Professional Guardians (OPPG) was filed in July 2016 and was an "open investigation" for three years. Even after we delivered a 52-page document of substantiated violations of Florida Statutes and the OPPG Standards of Practice to the Inspector General, it went nowhere. We finally received what was tantamount to a form letter "closing the case."
I filed the complaint after the emergency temporary guardian physically assaulted me so I wouldn't accompany Aunt Lillie into the doctor's office. She had already put forth fraudulent representations in a false missing person report--saying that the home was "abandoned" and she was going to put Aunt Lillie "in a place" before she had even met her or had been in the home. Then, she neglected to pay the basic bills. Aunt Lillie went without hot water for three weeks, the TV service was cut off due to non-payment and the grass grow high since the guardian fired the lawn service -- all while charging $17,000 for her first month. This was before she abducted Aunt Lillie with no justification. There were many more violations after that.
In our meeting, I emphasized that the Governor has the responsibility to enforce state laws including Chapter 825: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of Elderly and Disabled Persons. Since my aunt was abducted based on fraud and against her will, she is being "unlawfully caged" which is causing psychological harm. Just because the criminals have gotten away with it for this long and my aunt may have "learned helplessness" like a human trafficking victim, doesn't make it right. The Governor has the power directly, and through various agencies, to facilitate full access to my aunt for her entire family, order a through audit and investigation and support prosecution and retribution.
At the end of the conversation, Secretary Prudom said he would talk directly to the Governor about my aunt's situation. Since DeSantis apparently couldn't do much when he was my aunt's Representative in Palm Coast, let's see what he will do as Governor. His next move will show us who he is choosing to be. He has the opportunity to be a hero to citizens and use my aunt's case as the example that he will take real action. We still would like to meet with him so he fully understands what's happening in his state to innocent citizens. This should not be "business as usual."
Florida has a human rights crisis on its hands.
Seniors are being abducted for money.
If the state was a country, there would be a LEVEL 4 ALERT. That is a warning the State Department issues meaning "DO NOT TRAVEL" to that location. You could be kidnapped and the government won't help. Florida is at LEVEL 4 ALERT status right now. There should be a public service announcement warning anyone considering vacationing or retiring there. Unless there is substantial change to affect the pattern and practice of guardianship fraud, Florida is not safe for seniors.
I made a decision to fly to Tallahassee last minute and it was worth it to have a physical presence. I am grateful to the group of advocates who also showed up last minute and to Doug for being a great teammate. After that impromtu meeting, we visited the offices of various Representatives including Senators Kathleen Passidomo, David Richards, Travis Hutson, Tom Wright and others such as Representatives Colleen Burton, Al Jacquet and Joe Geller on the House side. I shared a one-sheet with comments on SB 994 for consideration.
Now I hope that we can get Aunt Lillie out of this guardianship trap alive, and craft more effective legislation to make Florida safe again. The state has the opportunity to be aggressive in reform and become the model for best practices in truly respecting and protecting seniors--but that will require political will and responsible leadership.
Please SIGN THE PETITION to Governor DeSantis to free Dr. Lillie Sykes White. For more on involuntary guardianships, watch The Deception of Protection and Silent Torture: Trafficking Through Guardianship.
Contributed by Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy, Founder of Elder Dignity.