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WLRN investigation featured in national conversation about guardianship reform

Camila Kerwin
WLRN Investigation: Unguarded

When elderly people or those with disabilities or mental illnesses are placed under guardianship, their rights are removed. A legal guardian is appointed to make life decisions for them, including decisions about their personal finances. Without greater transparency and scrutiny on these legal arrangements, vulnerable people can become victims of fraud and abuse.

U.S. senators, attorneys, advocates and people who have been placed under guardianships, as well as their families, are calling for more transparency and scrutiny nationwide. They also recommend the embrace of less restrictive options than guardianships such as supportive decision making, in which people who are considered “incapacitated” or incapable of making decisions independently can do so with the guidance of people they trust.

Unguarded,” a project from the WLRN News investigations team, along with a recent series from Bloomberg Law, in part prompted the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging to hold a March 30 hearing on guardianship programs, with an eye toward reforms.

Journalists from both news organizations shared their insights Tuesday morning during an hour-long episode of the national radio show 1A, produced by WAMU in Washington, D.C., as well as NPR.

WLRN’s Danny Rivero, who co-reported the project with reporter Joshua Ceballos, appeared on the program. Rivero advised people who might be considering placing a family member under guardianship to think ahead about how the arrangement might affect any real estate holdings the person might have.

If an elderly father comes under guardianship, for example, “all the decision making is removed from father, but also daughter, son, uncle, wife, everyone,” Rivero said on the show. “It's really incumbent on everyone, especially if you're proactively looking to put someone in guardianship, to get your affairs in order before you do so.”

During the show, listeners heard an excerpt from part two of WLRN’s investigation, in which Emma Ladson describes her astonishment when she learned that the Guardianship Program of Dade County sold her then-incapacitated mother’s Liberty City home for $31,000 in 2015.

Reporter Danny Rivero, who has been investigating guardianships in South Florida alongside WLRN colleague Joshua Ceballos, appeared on NPR's national show 1A to discuss the topic.

The sale was to Gallego Homes, one of two real estate companies WLRN has identified as frequent buyers from the Guardianship Program. The other company was Express Homes. Both companies have family ties to City of Miami’s top attorney Victoria Méndez.

When the Guardianship Program took control of the Ladson home, Emma, who was living there with her mother, was evicted.

“Because she did not have her name on that deed, the court could just quickly move to get her out of there, even though the family had owned that home outright for years,” Rivero said. “That was the family home. … Four generations had been through that home. And then, from one day to the next, she was put out on the street. She ended up in a homeless shelter.”

One of the obstacles to reforming guardianship programs nationwide is a lack of transparency about how they operate. According to Bloomberg Law’s reporting, there are an estimated 1.5 million active adult guardianships in the U.S.

In Florida, guardianships have not been tracked statewide — until now. A new law passed last year requires a statewide registry and is slated to be available early next year.

On 1A, Rivero said the lack of a registry has alarmed the advocacy group AARP for years.

“Part of the complaint that they've had for a long time is they just don't know. They don't know how many cases are open in Florida,” Rivero said. “You'd have to go into the guts of local government, to go to each clerk's office. And then each one has its own system. It's just incredibly cluttered and hard to track.

“So, I mean, there is hope that the database will be step one toward enabling people to put more scrutiny on this,” Rivero said.

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