A group of Central Florida lawyers have formed a nonprofit to aid incapacitated people in need of someone to make pivotal, life-altering decisions on their behalf. The Art’s Foundation, a 501c(3) nonprofit that formed roughly a year ago, plans to use donations to pay guardians to assist impoverished people who arrive at local hospitals medically incapacitated and without a natural caretaker in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.
Guardians are appointed by judges to make all legal, financial and medical decisions for their clients, who are called wards after they are deemed incapacitated by the court. Guardians are paid for their services through the ward’s assets or by the state.
But in Osceola and Orange counties, some local lawyers said they have seen a jump in the number of indigent people in need of guardians, putting a strain on the state’s guardianship programs and leading to people being placed on waitlists for days, weeks and, sometimes, months.
To lessen the burden on public guardians, some private guardians have been working pro bono, but some say it’s not enough. “In the past year, I feel like our caseload has increased dramatically … so we really have a great need in our community for guardians,” said Lori Loftis, an attorney who works for the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, an agency that takes on indigent guardianship cases.
“We have these clients who are in the hospital and they have no family members, they have no money … they basically have no one to help them,” she said. “We’re just trying to meet the needs of the community and assign guardians to these indigent people so they can get out of hospitals [and] live better lives.”
The Art’s Foundation was started by a group of lawyers but has expanded to include former judges and others who began meeting over the last year to discuss ways to fill the gaps left by the state’s guardianship programs. Through regular meetings, the group eventually landed on the donation-based nonprofit structure as their best option to address the needs of wards.
It’s the only nonprofit of its kind in Florida, Loftis said. About a dozen Central Florida guardians have signed up as “interested,” she added. If they are brought on, they will be appointed on a rotating basis. Robert Richardson, a founding board member who is heavily involved in nonprofit circles in Central Florida, said the Art’s Foundation could be up and running “within the next month or so.”
“We’re in good shape,” he said, adding that the group will “start with a small handful of cases to make sure that our processes are working and that they’re scalable.” He said while the foundation’s donor breakdown is currently uncertain, the nonprofit will seek donations from large organizations first before moving to mid- and small-sized donors. Donations, he said, may come from a broad range of areas, including the medical and assisted living facilities as well as the state and “people who have concern for the marginalized.”
Christina Hoagland, the vice president of health services for Osceola County’s public guardian program, said she is thrilled about the foundation. “We have a tremendous waiting list for guardians, so any additional support that comes into our county would be welcomed,” she said. “There’s just not enough dollars to help everybody that we want to help … any additional resources that come into this county is a blessing.”
Hoagland said the number of wards who can be helped by any of Florida’s 16 guardianship programs, which cover all 67 counties, is limited to the maximum number of cases each program can handle.
Once capacity is reached, wards are helped on a rolling basis; as one comes off, one is brought on.
As of Feb. 2, there were six people waiting to be served by the public guardian in Osceola County, according to an email from Sarah Stevenson, the director of communications for the Department of Elder Affairs. In Orange, there were no people on the waiting list, she said.
“We continue to work closely with our partners at the Florida Public Guardian Coalition to hear and respond to the needs of public guardians,” Stevenson wrote in an email.
Circuit Judge Leticia Marques, who oversees guardianship cases in Orange County, in a statement said the foundation has identified “a creative and effective solution to a unique problem that exists in our circuit.”
"Despite the lack of adequate funding and steady population growth we’ve experienced in Central Florida, individuals who can’t afford guardianship services and who are hospitalized will now have access to invaluable resources because of the tremendous work of the Foundation,” Marques said. “The court is hopeful that this vulnerable population will now receive much-needed guardianship services and we are grateful that charitable donations will fill the gap where state funding has not kept up.”
Florida’s guardianship system has been fraught with problems that have led to investigations and legislative changes in recent years. The case of Rebecca Fierle, an Orlando guardian who filed a do not resuscitate order (DNR) on behalf of Steven Stryker, a chronically ill Tampa man, against his wishes in 2019, prompted changes to the state’s oversight process for the orders.
Fierle resigned as a guardian from hundreds of cases in 2019 after she was accused of filing DNRs on behalf of wards without their families’ knowledge or against their wishes. She was also accused of double billing by sending invoices to care facilities while also charging her wards’ assets. Between 2009 and 2019, she billed AdventHealth alone almost $3.96 million.
Fierle was charged with aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly or disabled adult in Stryker’s death. A jury was unable to reach a verdict at her trial last September, resulting in a mistrial. The case remains pending.
In 2020, following extensive reporting of the case by the Sentinel and other media outlets, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that requires guardians to get a judge’s approval before signing a DNR.
Last year, DeSantis also signed a bill to create a statewide database for guardianship case information. The database was recommended by the Guardianship Improvement Task Force, a group sponsored and staffed by the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association.
For the upcoming legislative session, AARP Florida, said the state’s guardianship program is among its top priorities.
“We will support policies that include safeguarding rights and autonomy of individuals under guardianship, promoting less restrictive alternatives and the use of guardianship as an option of last resort,” read a listing published Feb. 9 by the senior advocacy group. The statement added that AARP Florida will seek increased training for all guardians and more measures to prevent and identify abuse of wards.
The same week, the only bill addressing the state’s guardianship program, HB 297, was withdrawn before being introduced. The bill by Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, would have granted visitation rights to family members of the person deemed incapacitated. Currently, only the professional guardian can determine who can visit their clients.
The bill would have also required a “full reevaluation of need for guardianship after a certain time.”
No related bills had filed as of Friday.