My career in the human service sector has certainly been a rewarding one, but sometimes a risky one. Risk is an inherent part of working with people whose lives are on the brink and whose families are in crisis. Delivering services to people who are often misrepresented and misunderstood — people coming out of prison, who suffer from severe mental health issues, who are homeless, who are victims of trafficking or abuse, who society prefers be kept on the margins in order to remain out of sight, out of mind — takes courage, conviction and, above all, compassion.
As CEO of Lutheran Services Florida, one of Florida’s largest human service organizations, every day I look for ways to best serve those in most need. Part of finding ways to best serve the 250,000 Floridians LSF assists every year includes working with and supporting elected officials to help ensure that laws and systems are in place to protect our communities’ most vulnerable people.
This is why I am so grateful for the leadership of state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. She recently introduced a guardianship bill (SB 232) intended to protect some of our communities’ most vulnerable members — elderly and incapacitated adults. It is an imperative for those of us in the human service sector to work toward creating community environments that best support people in need.
Detert’s bill takes some important first steps in making Florida’s guardianship system more transparent and more robust in its protections of due process and civil liberties.
Specifically, the bill, in part, expands the duties of the statewide public guardianship office, allowing for a disciplinary process for both public and private guardians. It requires less restrictive means before guardianship is authorized. And it calls for the State Office of Public and Professional Guardians to accept and investigate complaints. In sum, it works to put the individuals and their families, who are often facing difficult decisions and circumstances, at the center of the system.
As a long-standing professional guardianship agency in Sarasota County, LSF strongly supports the additional accountability and transparency mandated in the bill. For over 25 years, LSF’s guardianship program has served primarily indigent individuals who have no family, or who have no family member willing and able to manage affairs and make life decisions. As with any service, there is some risk to serving people who face challenges such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and whose family members might be estranged, or who live out of state. But if it weren’t for LSF, many would end up homeless or victims of abuse. LSF works on the philosophy that it is preferential that family members serve as the guardian. LSF also works to find the least restrictive measures to assist individuals with declining capacity to care for themselves.
LSF has trained and supported hundreds of family members to take on this role. As the appointed Public Guardian for the 12th Judicial Circuit (Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties), LSF already conforms to the bill’s proposed requirements and, as indicated through an annual audit by the state office of public guardianship, exceeds not only in compliance but in the quality of service provision.
Detert’s bill embodies the person-centered focus that LSF strives to achieve with everyone we serve. As noted, though, it is but a first step. LSF would like to see further legislation that codifies a shared decision-making model, one that favors less restrictive alternatives to guardianship and requires that guardians actively seek out suitable family members to accept guardianship responsibilities.
LSF will continue to work with Florida legislators to make Florida’s guardianship system the most compassionate and person-centered system in the United States.
On behalf of our entire agency, I commend Sen. Detert for her leadership in this arena and am hopeful that SB 232 passes without delay.
Sam Sipes is CEO of Lutheran Services Florida.