LAKE MARY, Fla. – For close to 30 years, Theresa Barton has worked at her guardian care office handling the financial and medical affairs of Floridians -- many of whom have been declared incapacitated by the state. Barton said while she is currently handling about a half a dozen wards under the state guardianship program, she has helped hundreds of people over the years.
However, as a professional guardian, Barton said she was surprised to hear how many cases former Orlando-based guardian Rebecca Fierle was handling before she became the focus of a state criminal investigation.
Court records show Fierle managed the affairs of hundreds of people and had more than 450 cases in several counties before she voluntarily resigned as a public and professional guardian. As to how Fierle ended up with so many cases, Barton says the answer is simple.
"Because she was answering the call, because she was coming when they needed her," Barton said.
Barton said she was even more surprised when she learned Fierle reportedly signed Do Not Resuscitate orders against the wishes of many of her clients, and without the court's consent.
"I don't know why that happened; it seems very odd to me," Barton said. "Our job is to honor their wishes, whatever they are."
An investigative report released by the Orange County Comptroller revealed Fierle is also accused of charging Advent Health almost $4 million during a 10-year span.
Barton was not surprised by that.
Barton said hospitals often get stuck paying for a guardian's services for some of their patients when they are transitioning from a stay at the hospital into a more permanent or appropriate facility.
"The hospital is in a corner. There's not a solution; it has no option," Barton said. According to Barton, this creates an ethical dilemma and potential conflict of interest for both guardians and hospitals.
"I'm supposed to be working for the client, not the hospital," Barton said. "I don' t think this is a good way to do this. However, the problem exists."
Barton said hospitals end up in this position because most clients run out of money quickly, since long term care in a nursing home or assisted living facilities can cost several thousand of dollars a month.
"Unless that client has over $5,000 a month in income, there would be no way for the professional guardian to be paid," Barton said.
Not only that, many guardians face angry clients and family members, who don't want their services, to clients who have no advance directives, no wills, no family and no money at all.
"Many of our guardianship cases are a terrible relationship, because they don't want the courts to take over their life," Barton said. "So it's really tough."
Barton said she was inspired to become a professional guardian after her mother became ill.
"That taught me how problematic it is for someone to be alone in a hospital without the ability to advocate for themselves," Barton said. "She couldn't protect herself. I often say that was the boot that kicked me through the door to say, 'I need to advocate for lots of people.'"
Barton said in the 30 years that she has been a guardian, she has helped clients with everything from paying their bills and taxes, to taking care of their animals, to handling their medical affairs.
She even handles their affairs after they've died.
Barton said that's why it was not unusual for state investigators who raided Fierle's office in August to discover nine urns containing cremated remains.
Barton said she and other guardians often have the cremated remains of some of their clients stored in their offices because nobody has come forward to claim them.
"I keep waiting, hoping for a family member, a long-lost cousin, somebody, will come and claim the ashes," Barton said.
However, that doesn't always happen and Barton says that's why guardians are often stuck with cremated remains for years.
"I don't like it," Barton said. "I want to find good, final resting places with public record where someone can find where they were."
Barton said she would like to see a memorial created, where guardians can take a client's ashes and put them to rest. She also would like to see the state create a public records registry for people to be able to find them.
Another challenge guardians face, include: What to do with a client's pets once he or she dies.
Barton said she and her team of workers have taken in many of her clients pets, instead of taking them to a shelter.
Barton showed News 6 a room filled with boxes of people's pictures, videos and medical equipment that has never been claimed.
She said she and other guardians often pay out of their own pockets to take care of some of their clients' expenses. Barton said they also often have to make the difficult decision to sell someone's home in order to help pay for their extended medical care, even if the client and family doesn't want it to happen.
"How is the house going to be paid for?" Barton said. "Do the family members want to pay for it? The insurance, the taxes, the upkeep, the utilities, the property tax? If they don't, what would be the other option that the guardian would have but to sell the home?"
These reasons, among others, are why Barton said she is glad there is a state investigation underway into the guardianship program. She hopes Gov. Ron DeSantis and others will come up with funding to improve the program.
"We need the cremation solution, we need the pet solution, we need a solution for indigent guardianships and more funding for public guardians," Barton said. "I don' t like the news, it's heartbreaking, it's terrible. But I hope the good from this is solutions -- not just government solutions, private and community solutions."
The Department of Elder Affairs recently asked for more than $6 million to help operate, regulate and monitor the more than 550 guardians currently registered in the state of Florida. Barton said the funding could help chip away at the massive waiting list that currently exists for client care.