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Guardians make a difference despite reputation

As a profession, guardians aren't highly paid. And the state-mandated paperwork can be daunting.

By LYNDA I. GURVITZ
Published December 23, 2003

Ask a professional guardian such as Sherry Dunn what she likes most about her job and you will get an answer you probably expect from someone in a human service profession: the opportunity to help others.

But ask professional guardians what they dislike most about their jobs and the answer may surprise you: It's the negative reputation they seem to have among the public.

"People think we are crooks," says Caroline Dempsey, vice president of the Guardian Association of Pinellas County and editor of the newsletter The Professional Guardian.

Dunn knows exactly what Dempsey means. When a store clerk found out Dunn's occupation she asked: "What does it feel like to rip off old people for a living?"

The reputation that guardians live lavish lifestyles off their wards' assets is ironic in that most guardians are not highly paid.

According to Correy Pastore, president of GAPC and a professional guardian, one-third to half of the caseloads for most professional guardians deal with indigent wards.

"These are often the most complicated cases," says Pastore, and they often take up a disproportionate amount of time. Because the state has no public fiduciary program that pays for the care of indigent wards, some guardians end up providing their service on a volunteer basis.

A typical caseload for a full-time guardian is 15 to 20 wards. Dunn says it is difficult to do a thorough job when a caseload gets too high.

"When you are a guardian, it is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job," Dunn said. "It is hard to go on vacation and when you do you are still on call."

Dunn says much of her time is spent on paperwork. Guardians are required to maintain time logs in increments of six minutes, and a court order must be obtained to use the ward's money for anything but routine care.

Each year guardians must file a medical report, care plan and the balance in each ward's account to the court. This accounting must include a copy of every check written by the guardian. Guardians also must be prepared to respond to random field audits in which they must produce all statements of accounts within 30 days or face sanctions. These audits have been implemented by the state to ensure that the ward's assets are used appropriately.

Guardians may petition the court for fees once every six months. Each county sets fees for guardians. Pinellas County has the lowest fee schedule in the area, allowing for $40-$45 per hour depending on the guardian's experience. Hillsborough's fee schedule is $50-$60 per hour; Manatee's rate is $60 per hour; and Palm Beach allows guardians to bill $75 per hour.

"You can't do this job for money. You have to do it for love," says Pastore. Most professional guardians come to this line of work as a second career, many after helping an elderly family member or friend.

Richard Pearse, an elder law attorney in Clearwater, explains that before 1989, when the Legislature overhauled the guardianship laws, it was "pretty easy to get someone adjudicated (as incapacitated) and easy to rip them off."

These abuses were featured in a series called "Wards of the Court" in the St. Petersburg Times in the mid 1980s. Pearse says the articles were an impetus for changes in the guardianship laws. The Legislature made three major changes in the guardianship laws.

-- The first provided more legal protection for potential wards. "It emphasized the need for due process in adjudication proceedings by requiring that potential wards are represented by counsel," Pearse said.

-- The second change provided for different types of guardianships. Before 1989, all guardianships were absolute: the ward lost all of his or her rights. The new law separates personal rights from property rights and allows for limited guardianships in which a ward can exercise some rights if capable.

-- The third change required closer supervision and oversight of guardians. All guardians must be bonded and fingerprinted, submit to background checks and keep meticulous records on their wards' accounts and medical status. The composition of the examining committee was also changed to include mental health and health care professionals other than physicians.

The guardianship process can be lengthy, complicated, stressful and costly. There are times when a person is appointed a guardian who doesn't need one; and other times when a person who needs help won't get it. But when the guardianship process works as intended, vulnerable individuals who are incapable of caring for themselves and their assets are protected.

Lynda I. Gurvitz has a doctorate in psychology and has served since 1996 as a member of the examining committee for the probate division of the 6th Judicial Circuit Court, which oversees guardianships in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Editor's note:

This is the last in a three-part series that explains the process of legal guardianship. Last month's column explained the relationship between a ward and her guardian. Not all guardians make life or death decisions for their wards, but every decision can affect the quality of life. It is important to consider the facts before making such a decision.

[Last modified December 22, 2003, 15:25:06]

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