AARP Eye Center
A new statewide database will bring much-needed scrutiny to Florida’s complex guardianship system when it launches next year.
Among the first of its kind in the nation, the database will include key information on court-appointed guardians, including how many people they oversee, if they’re registered with the state and if there are disciplinary actions against them.
The tool, which AARP Florida strongly advocated for, comes amid calls for reform of the state’s guardianship system, which has long been rife with cases of abuse and neglect. It’s not even clear how many guardians are operating in Florida.
“There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 active guardianship cases in the state, but we don’t really know,” says state Rep. Linda Chaney (R-St. Pete Beach), who sponsored legislation to create the database. “We don’t even know what we don’t know.”
While guardianship information exists, it is held in 67 individual circuit courts. But starting in July 2023, courts will be able to search a central database. The public will also have access to limited information about guardians but not whom they oversee.
“This has long been needed to truly get a full picture of how guardianships are playing out in the state,” says Zayne Smith, AARP Florida’s advocacy director, who served on the Guardianship Improvement Task Force, which made a central database a priority.
Judges appoint guardians for people deemed unable to make their own decisions for reasons such as dementia, a physical or intellectual disability, or an alcohol or drug problem.
Guardians can determine where their charges live, what health care they receive and how their money is spent. Many guardians are family members, but others are professionals.
Guardianships have a purpose, says Ken Burke, Pinellas County circuit court clerk and comptroller. The database will help the courts do a better job of assessing how well guardians are performing, says Burke, who last year chaired the guardianship task force, which was sponsored by Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers.
If a guardian has a case that looks suspicious, the court can see what the guardian is doing in any other county, he says.
“Florida will be the first large-scale guardianship system that will have a comprehensive set of data,” says Anthony Palmieri, president of the National Guardianship Association.
As Florida’s chief investigator for guardianships, Palmieri has looked into more than 2,000 allegations of abuse over the past five years. Among them was the high-profile case of an Orlando-area woman charged with the aggravated abuse and neglect of a 75-year-old man who died in a Tampa hospital in 2019. Authorities say she had signed a do-not-resuscitate order against the man’s wishes.
It took Palmieri four days of searching court records to discover she had hundreds of clients across 19 counties, but the judges who appointed her had no way of knowing that. “I should have been able to push a button and have the system tell me what her caseload was,” he says.
To file a guardian complaint, call the state Department of Elder Affairs at 855-305-3030. The Florida Bar has a free helpline: 800-342-8011.
Ann Hardie is a writer living in Atlanta.
More on Guardianship
Guardianship 101: What steps to take
AARP Backs Guardianship Reforms and Oversight