Guardian care reform eyed
An Okaloosa County clerk investigation has caught the attention of the governor
CRESTVIEW — An Okaloosa County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller investigation of embattled guardian Rebecca Fierle found she may have violated the law when she filed a do not resuscitate order without her ward’s, the family’s or the court's permission.
Her ward, 75-year-old Steven Stryker, died May 13 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. He had a chronic condition that required him to have an EGD periodically to allow him to eat solid foods. However, medical staff were prevented from attempting to rescue him when he began choking because of Fierle's DNR order.
Okaloosa County is one of six clerk’s offices in Florida accredited to do investigations for the Clerk’s Statewide Investigations of Professional Guardians Alliance. It issued its investigative report July 9 that includes a finding the Fierle committed aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult, a first-degree felony.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has opened its own investigation into Fierle.
“We certainly don’t want to speak for the FDLE,” said JD Peacock, Okaloosa County's Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller. “This is what we think they may look into. Our report speaks for itself.”
Clerk investigator Andrew Thurman spoke to the embattled Fierle, who lives in Orlando. A guardian for at least 10 years, Fierle resigned July 25 from all 450 of her court-appointed guardianships in 13 counties.
Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, said many of its members have complained about Fierle for years but that the complaints fell on deaf ears.
“How many complaints does it take?” Renoire asked. “Does it take a death? Apparently it does take a death. Life and death decisions should go to the court and a judge should decide.”
Fierle told the Okaloosa investigator that “because she was the court-appointed guardian, she had the authority to decide on end of life care and life-saving procedures.”
During her interview, she said she understood Stryker was estranged from his daughter and son. She said it was “difficult” to find places to accept and treat Stryker because he was a registered sex offender. Fierle mentioned that a DNR “was an issue of quality of life rather than quantity” and she filed them regularly.
Fierle also claimed she discussed life-saving care with Stryker and that “he agreed to the DNR being in place,” the report said, contradicting statements made by his daughter’s, a Tampa doctor and a friend to the Okaloosa investigator.
Kim Stryker, who lives in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint May 9 with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs’ Office of Public and Professional Guardians. In her complaint, she said her father expressed a desire to live but Fierle refused to remove the DNR. She said, “If not for Fierle’s actions her father would still be alive.”
She characterized Fierle as “callous and disrespectful,” and provided an email she received from Fierle on May 15. Fierle said it wasn’t her responsibility to inform her of her father’s death and that final arrangements “can be handled by you and your brother. That is not a task I handle if there is family.” She said they could submit the funeral home invoice to her, which funds in her guardianship account would cover.
Steven Stryker’s daughter also admitted to the Okaloosa investigator she did keep her father “at a distance” because of his past sex offender issues.
Dr. Kirtikumar Pandya, a licensed psychiatrist who examined Stryker at St. Joseph’s Hospital determined “he had the ability to decide that he wanted to live.” Pandya said Stryker “wanted to be resuscitated and wanted to be alive.” He called Fiele’s DNR “not rational” and requested the hospital “rescind the DNR.”
Based on the Okaloosa investigative report, Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe in Orlando, stripped Fierle of her oversight of 98 wards there at a hearing July 11.
“It’s awfully pompous for you to make a decision of what quality of life somebody else values,” Thorpe told Fierle.
Additional fallout included Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing to “vigorously” investigate Florida’s guardianship program and directing the state’s Department of Elder Affairs to do the same.
“There’s going to be action taken whether it’s administratively or legislative,” he said at a press conference. “I think something needs to be done.”
Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom said he would work with DeSantis on reforms.
“The governor and I will pursue legislative changes to grant the Department of Elder Affairs the necessary oversight authority to guarantee our ability to ensure that neglect and abuse to the frailest of the frail never occurs again,” Prudom said in a statement. “Something needs to be — and will be — done.”