Last spring, New Times published the results of a five-month investigation into Miami-Dade's guardianship system — the program set up by the courts to protect the assets of vulnerable people. Except in South Florida, it had become a politically-connected, un-regulated cesspool of abuse.
One year later, as Tallahassee works to overhaul the guardianship system statewide, Miami-Dade's courts are finally taking small steps toward reform. But the most obvious change — a dedicated county watchdog to sniff out corruption — is still nowhere to be found.
For decades, Miami's judges have been given essentially free reign to appoint anyone they chose to be a guardian — a position of tremendous power over a vulnerable resident, with wide leeway to control their assets, bank accounts and medical care. New Times investigation found that power was regularly abused, including:
• 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.
This week, Miami's probate courts instituted a new system to at least start addressing that final point. Now, professional guardians must register and cases are assigned on a rotating basis from that pool.
That move comes as multiple bills are working their way through Tallahassee, including efforts to make it more difficult to declare someone incapacitated and to limit how much guardians can be paid for their work.
But there's still one easy fix in Dade that hasn't been funded: A dedicated watchdog. Despite the fact that Miami, as of last spring, had 7,000 guardianship cases — the most in the state — there was no independent oversight of those cases. Palm Beach started a similar program in 2011, and has uncovered more than $3 million in abuse since then; Broward, too, has uncovered millions in guardianship abuse since starting its watchdog program.
Legislators last year gave county clerks new power to investigate abuses, but didn't fund that push; as a result, counties like Dade initiated almost zero new audits.
There's little doubt that Dade's most vulnerable residents are still at risk from unscrupulous guardians; this week's changes will help, but when will a transparent watchdog program come to Miami?
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