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

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.

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.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.