In 1986, the Associated Press published a yearlong investigation that found between 300,000 and 400,000 Americans stuck in guardianships, often without ever being examined by a doctor. Many were simply elderly people who had been shuffled into nursing homes without an attorney, let alone a court hearing. Some didn't even know they had been stripped of their rights. A Fort Lauderdale woman found out she had a guardian only when she was turned away from a polling booth on Election Day.

"There are professional guardians who are robbing estates blind."

Although Congress failed to enact national reform, the AP investigation did spur some changes. States including Florida began requiring a three-person committee — including at least one physician — to examine someone before declaring him or her incapacitated. Both the ward and his or her guardian were now required to have attorneys.

A few counties went further. Broward, Leon, and Hillsborough appointed their own court monitors. After a string of scandals, Broward judges appointed a former cop named Robert Twomey to the post in 1996. Within months, Twomey, a Vietnam vet now in his 60s, began uncovering abuse by professional guardians.

Illustration by Pat Kinsella

Jacinth Preston was one of his first targets. The flight attendant had been cherry-picking patients from Northwest Regional Hospital in Margate and wooing them into naming her their guardian. Then she squeezed them for all they were worth. Three weeks after one of her wards died of a stroke, she used his Sears credit card to buy a dishwasher. She later pleaded guilty to eight felonies.

In another case, Twomey became suspicious when examining an attorney's staggering $2 million fees, which were signed by a Broward judge. When Twomey looked closer, he found the papers had the wrong judicial district: They had been cut and pasted. Twomey called the FBI, which discovered the attorney had been faking the judge's ­approvals and then using the stolen money to buy six houses in New York and Florida.

If there's one case that haunts Twomey the most, however, it's that of Kathleen Ulsrud. A grandmotherly woman with a master's degree in social work, Ulsrud was one of Broward's most respected guardians. "She really seemed to care about the elderly," Twomey says.

During a routine review, however, Twomey discovered that Ulsrud had lied about a bankruptcy on her initial application years earlier. Judge Mel Grossman ordered all of her cases examined. Ulsrud, Twomey learned, had been juggling dozens of wards, stashing them in garbage-filled apartments or, in one case, a drug den. Most hadn't seen a doctor in years; Ulsrud had forged their annual exams. When the feds raided the flophouses, they had to rush one ward to the emergency room. Another one was found in a mortuary freezer — Ulsrud hadn't bothered to bury him yet.

As her wards lay dying, Ulsrud was busy stealing their money. She wrote herself checks from their accounts, pocketing up to $225,000, not including the jewelry she took. By the time she pleaded guilty to 34 counts of elderly exploitation, fraud, and perjury in early 2002, all but one of her wards had died. Ulsrud received five years in prison and ten years' probation.

More than a decade later, Twomey is still hard at work. Prosecutors recently filed charges against a caregiver who pretended to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Once appointed guardian, the woman allegedly stole $168,000 from her ward, an art heiress. "It all comes down to the almighty buck," Twomey says with a sigh.

Several other counties have recently followed Broward's lead, including Palm Beach, where clerk Sharon Bock has made guardianship fraud her Moby Dick. She set up the state's first guardianship fraud hotline in 2011 and hired a full-time auditor.

In two years, Bock and her auditor, Anthony Palmieri, have investigated more than 100 cases, uncovered more than $3 million in questionable payments, and referred 26 guardians for prosecution. So far, two have been charged with crimes: a father who took from his daughter's trust fund to buy himself a Jaguar, and a woman who stole almost $40,000 from her son.

"I had a caregiver spending the ward's money on Botox and cruises," Palmieri says. But the $3 million in fraud he's caught so far is just the tip of the iceberg, he says. He estimates there's $500 million worth of assets wrapped up just in Palm Beach's 2,700 guardianship cases.

"We are ground zero for the graying of America," Bock says. "This is an issue that we are not going to be able to ignore any longer."

But even as the rest of South Florida gets serious about guardianship abuse, Miami-Dade seems stuck in the past. Its probate courts are straight out of the 1980s: a paper filing system, bare-minimum background checks, buddy-buddy relationships between judges and guardians, and no Robert Twomey or Anthony Palmieri to catch bad guardians in the act.

"I don't understand why every jurisdiction doesn't have a special court monitor," Twomey says. "But if you put me in Miami, I'd be frightened to death of what I'd uncover."

A decade after she went to work for Royal Caribbean, six years after she was stricken with sickness and stripped of her rights, and a year after finally winning them back, Lacy Waters remains mired in the kind of poverty she tried to leave behind in Nicaragua. Despite a multimillion-dollar settlement with the cruise line, she spends her days confined to a crumbling apartment in Liberty City. Rotten floorboards bow beneath the 52-year-old as she plods between a cluttered bedroom and a claustrophobic kitchen.

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My Voice Nation Help

 I am a former court appointed Guardian in another state, although I live here.

With the rights of the children to bring their parent or grand parent home, there are specialized attorneys in estate law that can deal with this. From my experience, there is another perspective on this. Whether one is 80 or 20 and on a feeding tube because of a stroke or delated disorder,

there is the risk of the person choking when eating by mouth. Well intentioned people can feed someone by mouth and insist that the feeding tube is removed. However, even if the person appears to be eating all of the food, salivation can be created from a remnant of food left in the mouth, and that cause a severe stroke victim to aspirate.

We live in world now where people from Florida may be dealing with grandparents under Guardianship in Georgia or Alabama, for example. Quality attorneys specialized in this field can be of great assistance.

Winston Grace



This is Investigative reporting!  

great (sad) story