Why You Should Care About Guardianship Abuse

New Times cover stories usually need no introduction. They are often straightforward profiles of the insane characters cluttering South Florida: a murderous male porn star, an internet Lolita, or a washed up professional football player now obsessed with orca whales.

This week's feature is a bit different, however. Yes, there are kidnappings, accusations of fraud, and brain-eating tapeworms, but it is, at heart, an investigation into something most Floridians have never heard of: guardianship abuse.

So here are a few reasons why you should care about the issue, starting with the fact that you, too, could catch a deadly parasite from uncooked pork and wake up in a hospital without any legal rights.

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

That's exactly what happened to the story's main character, Lacy Waters. The Nicaraguan mother of ten was working on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship when she was stricken with brain-eating tapeworms.

She nearly died before an American lawyer brought her to Miami for treatment. But while she was in the hospital, Royal Caribbean petitioned a Miami probate judge to have Lacy's rights removed. She was placed under the care of a professional "guardian": someone paid out of Lacy's own pocket to run her life for her.

Suddenly, Lacy wasn't allowed to decide for herself where to live, what medicine to take, even who she could marry.

Roughly 50,000 Floridians are currently in such guardianships. Many are elderly people who have been deemed "incapacitated" by a court due to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or dementia.

But Lacy's case shows that guardianship can affect anyone. She was just 46 when her ordeal began. In another case examined by New Times, a 2-year-old girl was placed into a guardianship after falling and hitting her head.

As people live longer, the age of the average American is increasing. This "graying of America" is particularly acute here in Florida, now the country's grayest state. Chances are that you, a family member, or a friend will one day have to deal with a guardianship case.

It's no surprise, therefore, that guardianship is a big industry here in South Florida. Professional guardians can make millions off of their wards. Yet, some counties do almost nothing to monitor the practice.

In the past three years, Palm Beach County has caught more than $3 million in guardianship fraud. But Miami-Dade, with 2.5 times as many cases, has yet to crack down on the issue. Statewide, hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk.

Our five-month 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.

In the past few months, there has been much media focus on child abuse and the failures of the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Abuse at the other end of the age spectrum may be even more widespread, but often goes ignored. Miami probate courts strip people of their rights, putting them at risk of abuse from the very people that are supposed to protect them.

"The system is overwhelmed by the number of cases that are out there," says one guardianship attorney. "DCF is often accused of not acting fast enough, but I think it could be argued that in [guardianship] cases, the court acts too fast."

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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.