9 Investigates central Florida legal guardians

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Legal guardians are entrusted with the protection of central Florida's most vulnerable residents, but a three-month Eyewitness News investigation has uncovered over-billing and neglect complaints in the statewide guardianship system.

Investigative reporter Christopher Heath has combed through hundreds of pages of documents and learned there is little oversight of professional guardians. He also found out why those working to change the system are running into opposition that stretches all the way to Tallahassee.

Mae Williams, the mother of one ward requiring the care of a guardian, talked to Heath.

"She was real sick, and they got the head man in the place to put her in the hospital," Williams explained.

Williams' adult daughter had been living at a Maitland nursing home when she became ill, but her court-appointed guardian wasn't only unavailable to make a decision for her care, she was out of the country.

The family began a letter-writing campaign, pleading with the court to remove the guardian.

Channel 9 obtained the correspondence sent to Ninth Circuit Court officials. Eventually, the guardian resigned.

"You know what, she got herself removed," Williams said.

Across the state, guardians are assigned by the courts to help those determined to be incapacitated and unable to handle many financial and other personal decisions. They assist adults with special needs, and they get paid. And 9 Investigates found some get paid quite well.

Records Heath obtained show guardians billing $13.75 for phone calls, $55 for clerical work and $117 to mail bills.

Ninth Circuit staffers found some guardians billing upwards of $75 an hour, and in one case, billing a client $24,000 before even being assigned to the case by a judge.

Heath found that tracking the money is difficult. Most professional guardians have multiple cases and the easiest way to abuse the system is to spread the hours around.

The investigation uncovered one guardian who claimed she worked almost 30 hours in two days, but spread the hours across three clients -- or wards.

"You can't cheat people, and to me that's cheating," said Dale Walthouse, a professional guardian who was not among those with questionable billing histories. "It's dishonest."

Walthouse has been working with the court to help find the abuse in the system. Her work to help root out the problem led to an order by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry setting guidelines for guardian billing and other fees.

That order was almost immediately challenged by the state guardianship association.

Heath spoke to the head of the association as it held its annual conference earlier this month at the PGA Resort in Palm Gardens.

"If people are billing inappropriately, then the judge has the power to reduce those fees," said Lance McKinney, the outgoing president of the Florida State Guardianship Association.

McKinney added that there are already rules on the books to deal with guardian billing issues.

"The court and judicial system already has the full authority to review a guardian's actions," McKinney said.

Perry's order is currently before the Florida Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Williams family has found a new guardian but said they now wonder how much of the money is going where it's supposed to go.

Palm Beach County recently had its clerk's office conduct an audit of the guardianship system there. The office discovered what it calls "25 red-flags."

One guardian there is now charged with grand theft, accused of cashing a $58,000 check to himself.

The Florida Legislature does have the authority to rein in this system, but so far lawmakers have been unwilling to act.