Florida's Guardians Often Exploit the Vulnerable Residents They're Supposed to Protect

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Lacy Waters lay on a hospital gurney, her head a hornet's nest of pain and confusion. Between the brain parasites and the drugs designed to kill them, she could hardly think — let alone answer questions. Yet that was exactly what the strangers at her bedside now demanded. As the 45-year-old Nicaraguan maid with a grade-school education desperately tried to recall the names of American presidents, the three men made careful notes on their clipboards.

These men weren't her doctors, however. Instead, they had been sent by a Miami-Dade judge at the behest of Royal Caribbean — the very company Lacy blamed for her sickness.

Three years earlier, in 2005, Lacy had left Central America to work on a cruise ship. The job was supposed to be a ticket to a better life for her and her ten children. Instead, it had nearly killed her. Tapeworms — contracted from tainted pork served aboard the ship, she says — had infested her brain. Lacy was now fighting for her life. Little did she know that her visitors had just taken it from her with the stroke of a pen.


Florida's Guardians Often Exploit the Vulnerable Residents They're Supposed to Protect

Lacy doesn't remember her visitors, but she has been suffering from their decision ever since. Based upon their 15-minute evaluation, the judge declared Lacy a ward of the state. She was instantly stripped of her most basic rights. A woman Lacy had never met was appointed her "guardian" and given control over every aspect of her life, from her medical treatment to whether she could marry the man she loved. Most important: The guardian was also in charge of her assets and finances, including Lacy's ongoing lawsuit against Royal Caribbean.

It would be five years before Lacy would win back her rights. By then, the ordeal cost her more than just her freedom. She would also lose more than $250,000.

"All I could do was cry. I was powerless," Lacy says. "Thank God I got out of it."

Despite her travails, Lacy was actually lucky. Few of the roughly 50,000 Floridians inside the state's guardianship system ever escape. And for some, losing their rights is just the beginning. In cases of abuse, they are isolated from families, overmedicated, and physically neglected while guardians bleed their accounts.

Ostensibly set up to protect the state's most vulnerable citizens, Florida's guardianship system has ­itself become dangerous. Miami-Dade's might be the most dangerous of all.

A five-month New Times investigation, which entailed reviewing thousands of pages of guardian files, has found the following:

• Miami-Dade has more than 7,000 guardianship cases — more than any other county in the state — yet has arguably the least oversight and no dedicated watchdog.

• By contrast, Palm Beach County has uncovered more than $3 million in guardianship fraud since starting its watchdog program in 2011 despite handling less than half as many cases as Miami, while Broward's watchdog has caught a dozen guardians engaging in fraud worth more than $4 million.

• There were regular failures to file basic information. Guardians were often years late in filing financial forms, and until this month, Miami-Dade lacked any electronic system to track the programs.

• Guardians have given thousands in donations to the election campaigns of the same judges who appoint them to cases and award them their fees.

As America ages and baby boomers retire, elder abuse is quickly becoming a national epidemic. Florida, the state with the oldest average population, is its epicenter. Millions of dollars are lost every year to an out-of-control system, but the cost is more than financial. For wards such as Lacy Waters, their lives are at stake. And for their family members, bad guardianships can drive them to despair and even prison.

After years of inaction, state legislators are finally addressing the issue. Two bills cracking down on guardianship abuse were recently passed in Tallahassee. But some observers warn that tougher measures are needed to solve the fundamental problems.

"There are professional guardians out there who are robbing estates blind," says Naples Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, the Republican sponsor of two successful reform bills. "Some guardians do a great job and you'd trust them with your life. But then there are some who are horrendous."

Guardianship cases can become incredibly complicated, but the basic idea is simple: Those who are too old or infirm to take care of themselves and their assets need protection. So courts appoint a "guardian," often a family member but sometimes a professional, paid either by the public or from the ward's estate.

The practice dates back to ancient Greece — where Sophocles once had to prove to a court he wasn't senile to keep his son away from his property — and has found limited use in America as far back as colonial times.

By the 1970s, though, high-profile ­horror stories exposed the Catch-22 at the heart of guardianships. Guardians are appointed to protect the incapacitated and their estates, so guardians have to be given wide leeway with those assets. That leeway is a natural gateway to abuse. All it takes is a dishonest operator to run wild.

A seminal 1972 study by George J. Alexander and Travis H.D. Lewin showed that guardianships often benefited only one party: the guardians. The two law professors recommended cutting back on their powers.

In 1986, the Associated Press published a yearlong investigation that found between 300,000 and 400,000 Americans stuck in guardianships, often without ever being examined by a doctor. Many were simply elderly people who had been shuffled into nursing homes without an attorney, let alone a court hearing. Some didn't even know they had been stripped of their rights. A Fort Lauderdale woman found out she had a guardian only when she was turned away from a polling booth on Election Day.

Although Congress failed to enact national reform, the AP investigation did spur some changes. States including Florida began requiring a three-person committee — including at least one physician — to examine someone before declaring him or her incapacitated. Both the ward and his or her guardian were now required to have attorneys.

A few counties went further. Broward, Leon, and Hillsborough appointed their own court monitors. After a string of scandals, Broward judges appointed a former cop named Robert Twomey to the post in 1996. Within months, Twomey, a Vietnam vet now in his 60s, began uncovering abuse by professional guardians.

Jacinth Preston was one of his first targets. The flight attendant had been cherry-picking patients from Northwest Regional Hospital in Margate and wooing them into naming her their guardian. Then she squeezed them for all they were worth. Three weeks after one of her wards died of a stroke, she used his Sears credit card to buy a dishwasher. She later pleaded guilty to eight felonies.

In another case, Twomey became suspicious when examining an attorney's staggering $2 million fees, which were signed by a Broward judge. When Twomey looked closer, he found the papers had the wrong judicial district: They had been cut and pasted. Twomey called the FBI, which discovered the attorney had been faking the judge's ­approvals and then using the stolen money to buy six houses in New York and Florida.

If there's one case that haunts Twomey the most, however, it's that of Kathleen Ulsrud. A grandmotherly woman with a master's degree in social work, Ulsrud was one of Broward's most respected guardians. "She really seemed to care about the elderly," Twomey says.

During a routine review, however, Twomey discovered that Ulsrud had lied about a bankruptcy on her initial application years earlier. Judge Mel Grossman ordered all of her cases examined. Ulsrud, Twomey learned, had been juggling dozens of wards, stashing them in garbage-filled apartments or, in one case, a drug den. Most hadn't seen a doctor in years; Ulsrud had forged their annual exams. When the feds raided the flophouses, they had to rush one ward to the emergency room. Another one was found in a mortuary freezer — Ulsrud hadn't bothered to bury him yet.

As her wards lay dying, Ulsrud was busy stealing their money. She wrote herself checks from their accounts, pocketing up to $225,000, not including the jewelry she took. By the time she pleaded guilty to 34 counts of elderly exploitation, fraud, and perjury in early 2002, all but one of her wards had died. Ulsrud received five years in prison and ten years' probation.

More than a decade later, Twomey is still hard at work. Prosecutors recently filed charges against a caregiver who pretended to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Once appointed guardian, the woman allegedly stole $168,000 from her ward, an art heiress. "It all comes down to the almighty buck," Twomey says with a sigh.

Several other counties have recently followed Broward's lead, including Palm Beach, where clerk Sharon Bock has made guardianship fraud her Moby Dick. She set up the state's first guardianship fraud hotline in 2011 and hired a full-time auditor.

In two years, Bock and her auditor, Anthony Palmieri, have investigated more than 100 cases, uncovered more than $3 million in questionable payments, and referred 26 guardians for prosecution. So far, two have been charged with crimes: a father who took from his daughter's trust fund to buy himself a Jaguar, and a woman who stole almost $40,000 from her son.

"I had a caregiver spending the ward's money on Botox and cruises," Palmieri says. But the $3 million in fraud he's caught so far is just the tip of the iceberg, he says. He estimates there's $500 million worth of assets wrapped up just in Palm Beach's 2,700 guardianship cases.

"We are ground zero for the graying of America," Bock says. "This is an issue that we are not going to be able to ignore any longer."

But even as the rest of South Florida gets serious about guardianship abuse, Miami-Dade seems stuck in the past. Its probate courts are straight out of the 1980s: a paper filing system, bare-minimum background checks, buddy-buddy relationships between judges and guardians, and no Robert Twomey or Anthony Palmieri to catch bad guardians in the act.

"I don't understand why every jurisdiction doesn't have a special court monitor," Twomey says. "But if you put me in Miami, I'd be frightened to death of what I'd uncover."

A decade after she went to work for Royal Caribbean, six years after she was stricken with sickness and stripped of her rights, and a year after finally winning them back, Lacy Waters remains mired in the kind of poverty she tried to leave behind in Nicaragua. Despite a multimillion-dollar settlement with the cruise line, she spends her days confined to a crumbling apartment in Liberty City. Rotten floorboards bow beneath the 52-year-old as she plods between a cluttered bedroom and a claustrophobic kitchen.

Because Miami-Dade lacks a court-appointed monitor like those in Broward and Palm Beach, it's exceedingly difficult to find documented cases of guardian abuse. Waters is adamant that she never should have ended up under the thumb of a guardian for four years, especially when the same company she believes is responsible for her injuries pushed for the oversight. But her guardian and attorney tell a different story: that Waters was far too ill to handle her own life or lawsuit proceeds.

What's undeniable, though, is that if Miami had a guardianship watchdog, she could have at least aired her complaints to an impartial party. Instead, she struggled alone for almost five years and now has little to show for the battle.

"Deep inside me, I knew something wasn't right with what they did," Waters says. "But they have neckties and license to do what they did... I didn't know how to handle the system."

Waters was born in Bluefields, a small but bustling city on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Lacy grew up poor, a devout Jehovah's Witness who had ten children by the time she was 40. She always struggled to support her family, so when she was hired in January 2004 as a maid on the Royal Caribbean ships that periodically floated into port, Lacy considered herself lucky.

Three weeks after shipping out on one trip on the MS Sovereign, though, Lacy's head began to hurt. When she complained, the ship's doctor gave her a day's rest and then ordered her back to work.

For nearly two years, Lacy suffered from constant headaches and grew thin and weak. Finally, in September 2005, she had a seizure. When the ship docked in the Bahamas days later, doctors diagnosed Waters with brain lesions caused by tapeworms. The parasite can be contracted by eating undercooked pork. Waters, who as a Jehovah's Witness never ate pig back home, believes she caught it from eating the food for employees on the ship. "You do what you have to to survive," she says of eating the meat.

Surviving would be a struggle, however. Royal Caribbean flew Waters back to Bluefields, but there wasn't a hospital capable of treating her. So the company shuttled her back and forth from Managua. Though Bahamian doctors had recommended surgery, Royal Caribbean never paid for the procedure. Lacy's condition grew worse.

She might have died had she not met Steven Dunn. The Miami maritime attorney was in Nicaragua for another case when he struck up a conversation with a dark-skinned woman clutching her head in pain at the airport. When he heard Waters' story, he promised to take her case.

Royal Caribbean refused to send Waters to the United States for treatment, but Dunn brought her to Miami on a medical visa. A few months later, on February 23, 2007, he sued the cruise company, arguing Waters had caught the tapeworm aboard the cruise ship and that Royal Caribbean doctors had missed signs of the illness.

The company quickly struck back, arguing that Waters was too sick to handle her own lawsuit. Royal Caribbean demanded that Miami-Dade probate judge Arthur Rothenberg appoint a guardian. When Waters, with a brain riddled by tapeworms and swimming in toxic drugs, failed to answer questions adequately from the three-person review panel sent to her hospital room, she was stripped of her rights.

(In Florida, members of the examination committee receive money only if they declare the person incapacitated — a conflict of interest that critics are trying to change in state law.)

In hindsight, there were conflicts of interest from the beginning. For Royal Caribbean, placing a stranger in charge of her case was more manageable than an ex-employee who believed her life had been ruined by the company. Waters might demand a jury trial, but a guardian would settle. The company was even allowed to suggest a candidate: Jacqueline Hertz.

Hertz is a major figure in Miami's insular system. A Bronx native who was a paralegal before becoming a professional guardian in 1999, she now oversees roughly a dozen wards per year, more than anyone else in the county. Between her company, Jacqueline Hertz & Associates, and several other businesses with elder-friendly names, she makes enough to rent an office next to Mount Sinai Hospital and own a $1 million house near the golf course on North Shore Drive in Miami Beach. Her husband, Stephen, is an attorney who sometimes represents her in guardianship cases. ­Jacqueline Hertz has never been charged with a crime or investigated for wrongdoing.

Like other professional guardians in Miami-Dade, Hertz passed a background check, posted a $50,000 bond, and completed a 40-hour training course, but she has no license, so she isn't accountable to either the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) or the Florida Bar.

"We are scrutinized," Hertz counters. "A realtor can sit in a course, sign a piece of paper, take a test, and they are considered a professional with DBPR, make 6 percent commission, and make millions. Guardians go through more than that for less money."

Hertz may not have made millions off Waters' guardianship, but she did make serious money. After Waters underwent brain surgery in August 2008, Royal Caribbean agreed to give her several million dollars — the exact amount is confidential. By then, Hertz and her attorney had already filed for tens of thousands of dollars in fees. Florida statutes entitle guardians to "reasonable fees." Hertz charged $95 an hour, on the upper end of the scale. Hertz's attorney, meanwhile, charged Waters $300 an hour. Including her own lawyer, Waters had spent more than $5,000 a month in legal fees, with no end in sight.

Hertz also signed off on the settlement, which gives Waters only a monthly stipend instead of a net payment. After signing the deal, Hertz kept Waters' life tightly budgeted: $600 a month for her family in Nicaragua, $250 in "personal expenses," and $700 for "food/entertainment." Waters soon believed she was well enough to handle her own affairs. But Hertz — and the court — disagreed.

"I would ask for things and she would say, 'No, they're not on the list,'" Waters remembers. "I felt like I was a child again. I had to prove that I needed something. I had to ask permission all the time. I had to beg for everything."

That included her personal relationships. While recovering from surgery, Waters had reconnected with a boyfriend from years before in Bluefields. Phillip Hodgson was a mechanic who repaired Miami Police cars and lived in Liberty City. They planned to get married as soon as she was better, but Hertz refused. She ultimately relented after meeting Hodgson. But when Waters finally wed, the judge threatened to hold her in contempt for not having a prenuptial agreement in place.

"I looked at them and I just shook my head," Waters says. "All I wanted was for them to leave me in peace."

Waters finally escaped her guardianship in February 2013, when a judge ruled she was fit to manage her own life again. But instead of using her mass settlement to start a new life, she had spent more than $250,000 on her guardians and lawyers, and the deal they'd signed off on allowed her only enough money per month for a shabby apartment.

Hertz and Dunn tell a different story, of course. The guardian says she worked with Waters to gradually give her back her rights. "I was able to take little baby steps with her," she says. "We gave her control of one thing, then another, then another."

And Dunn says the discrepancy between Waters' and Hertz's stories isn't surprising.

"There is always a potential conflict in a situation where a ward has money and the guardian is getting paid to represent the ward," Dunn admits. "A guardian's personal interest in keeping a client can be great... You have to have a guardian who will consider the ­interests of the client before their own.

Waters' life now is simple: She sits at the table in her kitchen and watches her dog bark at neighbors until her husband comes home. But at least it's her life. If she lived in Palm Beach or Broward, she could have gotten her life back much sooner.

"When you have back your rights," she says, staring out the door, "whatever you do, wrong or right, it's your decision."

It was the feeding tube that made Barbara Stone snap. For months she had been fighting with Hertz over the treatment of her mother, Helen. The 86-year-old had already been hospitalized while under the professional guardian's care. She was now supposed to be recovering. So when Barbara stopped by an Aventura nursing home and found her mother hooked up to a tube — a short step away from death itself, Barbara thought — something broke inside the buttoned-down real estate broker.

She waited until the hallways were empty. Then Barbara lifted her mother's shrunken frame into a wheelchair and said, "Mama, let's go out for a little walk."

They drove to Denny's. Then Barbara took her mother to a motel room and turned on the TV set. "We were having a grand old time," Barbara says. "Then the cops arrived."

Stone was arrested and charged with three felonies, including false imprisonment and elder abuse, all — in her view — for trying to save her own mother from what she saw as an abusive guardianship.

Like Waters' tale, Stone's version of events is hotly contested by Hertz, who contends Stone was delusional. But like the Nicaraguan's case, critics say it also shows how guardianships can go wrong without an independent watchdog to judge claims of abuse.

Stone's story also illustrates why dozens of Floridians every year end up facing felony charges for trying to extricate family members from what they consider abusive guardianships. And records suggest that, in general, they have some right to be concerned, particularly in Miami-Dade, where judges have taken thousands of dollars from the guardians who depend on them for a living and where filing systems and supposed safeguards are outdated and barely used.

"Isolate, medicate, and rape the estate — that's what guardians do," Stone says. "Every morning I wake up to this nightmare."

Stone's ordeal began as many do: with a family dispute. Her father was a stockbroker in North Miami Beach. When he died in the mid-'90s, his son took over the family's accounts. Instead of finance, Barbara had gone into real estate. She had become a broker in New York City but flew home frequently to visit her mother, who lived in Aventura.

But in 2012, Barbara began to notice bruises on her mother. Helen had been diagnosed with dementia, and Barbara began to believe her mother needed better care."I didn't have any other option but to file for guardianship," she says.

Filing a probate court petition was like cracking open Pandora's box, though. Given the financial dispute between the siblings, Judge Michael Genden turned to Hertz.

The guardian hired caretakers, but ­Barbara contends that whenever she would call her mother from New York, the old woman sounded terrified. "I'm being tortured," she said during a 2013 conversation, which Barbara recorded. "They'd be happy for me to die, and I'd be happy to die too because I can't take it anymore."

Her belief that her mom was being abused strengthened when her rabbi, Ed Farber, stopped by to check in on Helen and found her without a walker or groceries. The elderly woman wouldn't even respond to conversation. "Helen couldn't utter a coherent word," Farber says. "This was not tiredness... It was neglect."

Barbara filed a petition to have a doctor examine her mother; it was rejected, but soon thereafter Helen Stone was rushed to the hospital. Barbara provided New Times with the medical exam, which listed dehydration, malnutrition, broken vertebrae, ingrown nails, hernias, chronic pain, depression, Alzheimer's, dementia, and suspected pneumonia. "She was emaciated," Barbara says.

(Hertz disputes that report. "Her mother was hospitalized for back pain," Hertz says. "I can't go into the details because of [privacy laws], but they found nothing out of the ordinary, and they were able to treat her.")

That set the stage for Barbara's clash with the law. When Helen stabilized, she was moved to the Aventura nursing home. "She was supposed to be doing rehab, riding a bicycle," Barbara says.

Instead, Barbara found her mother loaded up on painkillers and once again attached to a feeding tube. Furious, Barbara wheeled Helen out and drove off. A few hours later, she was arrested and charged with kidnapping and abusing her own mother. (The most serious charges have been dropped, but Barbara still faces deferred prosecution for custodial interference.)

Barbara claims the case is a clear-cut example of how Miami's lack of safeguards allows a guardian to abuse an elderly client.

But Hertz insists Helen was well-cared-for. She says Barbara became obsessed with her mother's imagined injuries, and provided New Times with nine police reports involving Barbara trying to intervene in her mother's care. The reports show Barbara being asked to stay away from her caregivers, and police finding no substance to her complaints.

"I don't want you to have a bad taste in your mouth about professional guardians and what we do," Hertz says. "We have a very, very high standard. We treat our wards as we would our own family."

Barbara Stone is far from the only family member driven to desperation by Miami-Dade's system, though. Kevin and Teresa Pizzarello were arrested December 27, 2012, while trying to check on her father inside his Pinecrest home. The old man suffered from dementia but had nonetheless been given a mirror and tweezers and allowed to pluck himself bald. Charges against the Pizzarellos were later dropped.

Lidya Abramovici went to even greater lengths for her mother, Perla Brief de Abramovici. The Venezuelan had been visiting Lidya in Miami when her other daughter asked a judge to declare her incapacitated. Even though Perla wasn't a U.S. citizen and had no property in Florida, she was assigned a private guardian. Perla's lawyer told Lidya there was only one way out: to flee the country.

"The last thing I wanted to do was become a criminal," Lidya says. But in August 2010, she loaded her mother onto a flight to Panama. She immediately had private doctors examine her mother and declare her competent; then she uploaded video of the exam to YouTube.

But Lidya was an American citizen, and Judge Maria Korvick threatened to hold her in contempt if she didn't return with her mother to Miami-Dade. After 18 months in Panama, the daughter relented and brought her mother back to Miami. Perla was barred from leaving the States again. Her U.S. visa expired in 2012, but it was only in February 2013 that she was allowed to return to Caracas — in a coffin.

According to Lidya, only then did Judge Kor­vick acknowledge what she had been saying all along: Perla's property was in the Cayman Islands, so Miami-Dade never had jurisdiction over her estate to begin with. By then, however, almost a half-million dollars had been drained from the old woman's accounts. Lidya requested an audit, but by state law, they are confidential. She can't even see for herself if there is evidence of fraud. "It's like a robbery!" she says. "They say, 'Give us your money or else.' And there is nothing anyone can do about it."

Dr. Sam Sugar is a retired physician who went through his own guardianship horror story before his mother-in-law died. He has since started an organization called Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. He says he receives dozens of emails a day from victims across the country who have been driven to depression or acts of defiance. He calls it "legal abuse syndrome."

Miami-Dade's guardianship system is particularly corrupt, he says. "This group of court rats that hangs around the judge asking for guardianships are the same people who contribute to his campaign," he says.

In fact, he's right. State records reveal that Miami-Dade probate judges often award cases and fees to guardians who have donated thousands of dollars. Judge Rothenberg, who handled Lacy Waters' case, accepted money from guardians and their attorneys — although not Jacqueline Hertz.

Rothenberg recently retired, but his replacement has already far outstripped him in terms of questionable campaign donations. Judge Korvick, who ordered Lidya Abramovici to bring her mother back to the States, raised $175,622 in her unopposed 2012 election. Several thousands came from professional guardians or their attorneys.

At the top of the pile is Jacqueline Hertz. She donated $250 to Korvick's campaign May 5, 2011. Since then, she has received at least one case from the newly appointed judge. Also contributing to Korvick's election: Marsha Madorsky. The attorney worked for the guardian in the Abramovici case, earning more than $150,000.

New Times was scheduled to meet with Judge Korvick, but her office abruptly canceled the interview.

It's this incestuous court setting that exacerbates what wards' family members must endure. Without a local watchdog, they often feel they have nowhere to turn.

"No one is monitoring the guardians except for judges, whose campaigns are paid for by them," Barbara Stone says. "It's creepy."

Guardianship victims may feel isolated, but they aren't alone. A handful of groups like Sugar's have sprouted across the United States. Here in Florida, momentum has been building toward addressing guardianship fraud.

"There is a perfect storm hitting us," says Roberta Flowers, a law professor at Stetson University. "There are more elderly people, and they are living longer. This will be the largest ­transfer of wealth in American history."

Flowers says the solution is simple, but it won't be easy: "We've got to figure out a way to give resources to the people with power to investigate the abuses that are occurring."

That was the idea, at least, behind a bill passed earlier last month in Tallahassee. The legislation, modeled on what Sharon Bock has done in Palm Beach County and proposed by Naples Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, empowers all of the state's county clerks to conduct in-depth audits of guardianship cases.

Right now, only a handful of county clerks cast more than a cursory glance over guardianships. Miami-Dade clerk Harvey Ruvin, for example, does almost nothing to audit the county's 7,000 guardianship cases.

New Times spent scores of hours examining dozens of guardianship files. Many appeared to be incomplete. In roughly half of them, the guardian hadn't filed his or her accounting form on time. In a few cases, the forms — which inform the ward or his or her family members how the estate's money is being spent — were more than a year overdue. The harshest punishment meted out was a written reminder. But when New Times asked the county clerk if he was worried about fraud, he was caught by surprise.

"I'm not familiar with the issues you're talking about," he said before quickly ­excusing himself. "Send me your questions. I'll get up to snuff, and then we can talk about it."

A week later, Ruvin's office sent a response. The Clerk of Courts' Probate Compliance Auditing Unit "conducts monthly reviews of professional guardians and their employees to make sure they are in compliance," it read. But Ruvin's office admits it "does not conduct on-site inspections or investigations during the review process," as authorized by Passidomo's bill.

Passidomo's bill isn't perfect. For the law to do any good, it would require more clerks like Bock and fewer clerks like Ruvin. Also, the legislation sailed through the legislature only because it was supposedly already paid for. If signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the only difference would be that clerks could subpoena records to catch unscrupulous guardians.

In reality, however, most counties would need to hire at least one full-time court monitor to seriously tackle guardianship fraud. That translates to a price tag of at least $5 million, by New Times' estimate. Another Passidomo bill that also passed lowers the threshold for proving elder abuse. But it too is toothless unless auditors and prosecutors actually investigate guardianship fraud.

"One court monitor [per county] may not be enough," Flowers says. "Does that monitor have backup and resources to do those investigations? And once they discover those abuses, do they have a prosecutor's office that is willing to step in?"

Unlike other counties, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office does not have a unit devoted to elder abuse, let alone guardianship fraud. Pressed by New Times for numbers, the SAO said it couldn't point to a single prosecuted guardian.

Hertz claims that's because the county is clean. Flowers says that's unlikely. "Based on the size of Miami-Dade, it defies common sense and logic to believe there has never been a guardian who has exploited a ward," she says. "Shame on them."

Another bill backed by Dr. Sugar's group died in committee. It would have overhauled the guardianship system, capped fees for guardians and their attorneys, required examining committee ­members to be doctors, and required courts to keep family members better informed.

Had it passed, the bill would have likely reduced the number of people deemed incapacitated in Florida. Flowers says that would have been a good thing. As Alexander and Lewin suggested in their study 40 years ago, she believes courts should use more limited methods of helping the incapacitated. "The guardianship system is overused," Flowers says. "Sometimes we can help people make decisions without taking away all of their rights."

The new laws come too late for Lacy Waters. It's been more than a year since she regained her rights, but she still lives in the same slumping Liberty City apartment with her husband. She says they want to buy their own place in a better neighborhood, but guardianship took a bite out of her settlement money, and the monthly annuity payments she's left with aren't enough.

"Miss Jackie offered to help us buy a house," Lacy says, standing on a tiny patio smeared with dog feces. "But my husband said I cannot go back to that woman."

Barbara Stone might have no choice. She still has no idea where her mother is being kept. The last time she tried contacting her, the judge threatened to send Barbara to jail for ignoring his stay-away order. Barbara — as well as a New Times reporter — is even banned from viewing her mother's court file. She's afraid the next time she sees her mom will be at her funeral.

"I don't give a damn about the money," she says, her voice breaking. "It's not about that. My mother's life has been ruined. My life has been ruined. They call it guardianship, but it's more like hell."

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