ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — The CBS12 News I-Team is continuing its investigation into guardianship abuse in Florida, and focusing on a common theme in many cases we've covered: isolation.
Court-appointed guardians are supposed to handle the money and affairs of their wards once they've been declared "incapacitated."
Families tell us once a guardian gets control, they often cut off their ward's contact with loved ones, making it difficult to spot abuse and address it.
Christine Montanti reached out to the I-Team during a fight for her mother's freedom and visitation rights.
Montanti, who is from Long Island, said her mother Karilyn Montanti was placed in guardianship under special circumstances. Her sister was acting as power of attorney, working with a court-appointed elder care manager to handle Karilyn's affairs.
"Her rights were taken away from her," Christine told the I-Team. "She's isolated. Blocked from family and friends. Her phone was removed. She had no access to her computer or the outside world."
She says contact with her mother was completely cut off, leaving Karilyn unable to see loved ones, including her only grandchild.
The isolation took its toll. Christine showed us pictures of her mother that appear to show how she aged and lost weight under this arrangement.
Christine says she tried to ask a judge for a hearing to present evidence but was not allowed to speak and address the visitation issue.
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"It was like they took away my family member while she's living, and essentially placed her in a jail," Christine said.
She hired Florida attorney Ron Denman after learning of his track record in guardianship abuse cases.
He tells us the pattern of isolation is something he sees all the time.
"Typically a guardian will say that a person who is being cut off who can't see mom or dad, is because they are somehow harming their parent," he said, "creating stress, creating anxiety. But if there is no one there to be able to watch what's going on, there is no one able to report if the guardian is not doing the right thing."
In Florida, guardianship law states guardians should "allow the ward to maintain contact with family and friends unless the guardian believes that such contact may cause harm to the ward."
That, advocates say, gives guardians too much discretion to cut off anyone and everyone they want -- no matter what the ward's wishes.
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In other states, visitation rights are being written into the law. For example, in California, guardians, called conservators in that state, are not allowed to restrict visitation unless a judge specifically orders it.
In Arizona, individuals who lose access to a ward may petition the court for a contact order.
In Karilyn's case, Denman petitioned the court to not only restore communication but to also end the guardianship completely. New physician evaluations determined that while she is disabled, Karilyn has the mental capacity to make her own decisions.
This fall, they had a surprise victory: a judge ordered all restrictions on Karilyn removed, and dismissed the care manager. In other words, Karilyn got her freedom back, and Christine could visit her again.
Christine moved her mother to a new facility in Palm Beach County, where she says she is thriving.
"She loves her new facility. She is happy. She has a second chance at life," Christine said.
Denman got emotional, explaining what it's like to see a client get their rights back.
"I don't know that I can put that into words," he said. "It's the true reason some of us become lawyers. When you can change someone's life."
While they are celebrating the recent victory, they know the fight is not over. Karilyn's family is still fighting in court over control of Karilyn's living arrangements and estate. Christine fears a guardianship arrangement could come back.
The I-Team reached out to Christine's sister, the former care manager, and their attorneys for comment but did not hear back.