TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled his $91.4 billion budget request Monday, including a plea for more money to help expand oversight of the state's professional guardians.
- DeSantis's budget proposal includes $6.4 million for state guardian office
- Guardianship program has been under fire after death of Brevard man
- Agency says it is anticipating more complaints, increase in legal costs
The funding request comes amid growing scrutiny of a system that some family advocates say is plagued by a lack of oversight, leading to neglect and, in some cases the death of seniors.
"I think it’s a seriously important issue that deserves more of a quick fix," Florida’s Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom told Spectrum News Watchdog reporter Curtis McCloud in August. "It is something that I will be working with the governor and his policy staff, and we will be working with the Legislature and I think the judicial branch as well."
In his budget proposal, DeSantis is requesting lawmakers provide $6.4 million to support the Office of Public and Professional Guardians through the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.
OPPG is seeking an increase of $454,930 specifically for professional guardian investigative services and legal fees.
"With the increased public awareness of guardianship, concerns about guardianship abuse and exploitation and outreach about the program’s responsibilities, OPPG anticipates an increase in the number of professional guardian complaints, investigations, administrative complaints and subsequent legal costs," the agency wrote in a pitch to lawmakers.
The increased public awareness has come from a series of investigations into the system.
Spectrum News first reported on the case of Steven Stryker in July 2019. State investigators say he died in part because of neglect by his court-appointed guardian, Rebecca Fierle.
Orange County Judge Janet Thorpe appointed Fierle as Stryker's guardian in September 2018. The court appointment gave Fierle full legal authority to make health-care decisions for Stryker as well as control of his money and assets.
Spectrum News later learned Fierle was registered as a guardian for at least 450 people, or "wards," in 13 counties.
Fierle has not been charged in the death, although she is the focus of multiple criminal investigations into at least two underway as of November 2019: one by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the other by the Florida Attorney General’s Office.
Additionally, two investigations by the Orange County Comptroller’s Office accuse Fierle of mishandling cash and assets belonging to her wards, as well as receiving almost $4 million by overbilling AdventHealth and the court system.
Family advocates also place blame on the court system itself, saying judges routinely fail to provide the necessary oversight.
"Except for maybe one brief appearance in front of a judge, a judge never sees these wards ever again, and — in fact, one of our biggest complaints — do they not only not see them, but they forget about them and they fail to do their job of monitoring every guardianship they create," said Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of the group Americans Against Abusive Guardianships.
Spectrum News’ extensive investigation found that Thorpe later revealed, when revoking Fierle’s guardianship status, that Fierle had not been insured as a guardian in six years and failed to notify the court of several employees.
While Florida lawmakers are still crafting specific legislation that state officials say is necessary to provide appropriate oversight, federal lawmakers have also taken steps to improve guardian programs across the country.