Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy speaking at the Senate Committee on Judiciary in Tallahassee, FL - January 28, 2020
TALLAHASSEE, FL. - Elder justice advocates in Florida and across the country traveled hundreds of miles to Tallahassee to speak for just one or two minutes at the Senate Committee on Judiciary meeting on Tuesday, January 28, 2020. State Senator Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, sponsored SB 994 to increase protections for seniors under guardianship. The bill passed by a vote of 6 to 0.
Advocates agree that the bill is a step in the right direction but much more is needed -- and faster.
Lynn Sayler's mother of St. Petersburg died under guardianship after being isolated and financially exploited. Hillary Hogue of Naples freed her affluent father from similar abuse but it left him penniless. Both are committed to reforming the system. Doug Franks--who successfully freed his mother, Ernestine, from an abusive guardianship in Pensacola just 45 days before she died--drove from Georgia to seek change to help others. Marcia Friedman, of Miami, is still fighting to free her mother from forced isolation. I flew in from New York to comment on the bill and speak about my aunt, Dr. Lillie Sykes White, who was abducted by two court agents and has been in forced isolation in DeLand for 1273 days, almost four years.
The bill has additional requirements for the petition for the appointment of a guardian, as well as the initial and annual guardianship plan; requires a judges to review whether potential guardians have conflicts of interest before assigning them to a ward; requires court approval for a guardian to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order on behalf of a ward; and requires guardians to report how much they were paid in an annual report.
Now that the senators accepted the amendments and the bill, it will be heard in the Committee on Rules and Administration. The companion bill, HB 709, goes before the Health and Human Services committee on January 29th. These changes are necessary but may be "too little, too late" for many families. The bill does not get to the root causes of guardianship fraud and will not help seniors, like Dr. White, who are currently being victimized.
"(The bill is) narrow in scope," Passidomo said. "I would've liked to have done a complete rewrite of Florida's guardianship laws but that's going to take a couple of years and we wanted to address the issues that have recently arisen."
The heat rose on Florida's guardianship system after the 2019 death of Brevard County's Steven Stryker.
Orange County Judge Janet Thorpe appointed Rebecca Fierle as Stryker's guardian in September 2018. Within a few months, 75-year-old Stryker died in a Tampa hospital after Fierle apparently ordered his feeding tube capped and filed a "Do Not Resuscitate" order against Stryker's wishes. Staff could not perform life-saving procedures. Fierle was registered as a guardian for at least 450 people in 13 counties. She is subject to a FDLE criminal investigation but has not been charged with a crime.
Governor Ron DeSantis included a $6.4 million increase in his state budget proposal to expand guardian oversight by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. The jury is out whether this will make a difference.
Some questions many advocates have are:
What is Florida going to do about seniors who are currently being victimized under fraudulent guardianships? Is Florida leadership going to leave them to die or save them?
When will predatory attorneys, abusive guardians and complicit judges be held responsible?
How can legislators speed up the process of reform?