PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (CBS12) — At 26 years old, Michael Lincoln-McCreight has done what few people in a guardianship have been able to do: get out.
After losing all of his rights, becoming a ward of the state for two years, and then successfully fighting to get his rights restored, Lincoln-McCreight is sharing his story with the CBS12 News I-Team in the hopes that other wards can take the same steps and live freely again.
"There is always a way to get out," he said. "You sometimes have to out-smart the system. There are a lot of cracks in the guardianship world."
Guardianship is supposed to be a last resort to protect our most vulnerable when they can no longer care for themselves. It's a system designed for the elderly and disabled who do not have the capacity to make their own decisions and manage their affairs.
Family members can become court-appointed guardians, and so can professional guardians who can charge their wards' money to manage their lives. Once they're appointed, guardians, also known as conservators, can exercise complete control over an individual, making all of their decisions and even charging wards money to do the work.
The CBS12 News I-Team is investigating guardianship in Florida and found numerous cases of guardians exploiting their wards and stealing their money.
Lincoln-McCreight had never heard about a guardianship before he was in one. It happened when he turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system.
He says he was put into a group home, and "that's when the fishiness began."
Doctors, psychiatrists, and lawyers started to meet with him and ask him questions, but he says no one explained the purpose of the visits. It wasn't until he was appearing before a judge that he learned someone petitioned the court to declare him "incapacitated" and unable to care for himself.
Lincoln-McCreight has a disability but knew it was wrong when a judge declared he didn't have the capacity to live independently and put him under the control of a public guardian.
From there, he was placed into a group home for adults with behavioral health issues. For two years, he says he lived like an inmate: cut off from his phone and internet, unable to go anywhere or talk to anyone without permission, unable to access his own money.
"It was really wrong, and it was really annoying," he said. He found himself asking, "Why am I here? Why did I deserve this?"
One day, a friend's mother suggested he reach out to a group called Disability Rights Florida for advice. But getting into contact with them wouldn't be easy.
Lincoln-McCreight decided to ask his guardian for $60 so he could pretend to buy a book, but he secretly used the money to buy a cheap cellphone. He told CBS12 News he hid it in a closet to make his first phone call to Disability Rights Florida, and ask for help.
"Mike's experience really goes to show and speaks to what an amazing advocate he is," said Viviana Bonilla Lopez, a lawyer with Disability Rights Florida. "He realized this is not what I want, and was determined to get out of it."
A different lawyer with Disability Rights Florida took on Lincoln-McCreight's case and petitioned a judge to reconsider the capacity declaration.
A new court evaluator met with Lincoln-McCreight and determined he did have capacity. When a different judge reviewed the report, he opted to end the guardianship and enter him into a less-restrictive arrangement called "Supported Decision Making."
As Bonilla Lopez explains, Supported Decision Making is a model that gives a person all of their rights back and allows them to be the chief decision-maker for themselves. When making certain decisions, like financial decisions, the individual can turn to a designated team of "supporters" for advice and guidance.
In Lincoln-McCreight's case, his supporters are his pastor and two trusted adult friends.
Not only did Lincoln-McCreight win his freedom -- he charted a new path for other wards. He is the first person in the state of Florida to get out of guardianship using the Supported Decision Making model.
Since winning his case, Disability Rights Florida has gotten two other wards out of their guardianships using SDM.
And now, with the help of Lincoln-McCreight, they are working on a piece of new legislation that would require judges in Florida to consider SDM before putting people into restrictive guardianships.
"We are hoping it will take a lot of people out of the system of guardianship, for whom there are better alternatives," said Bonilla Lopez. "We are encouraged that there are so many stakeholders who are recognizing that Florida's guardianship law needs to be fixed and recognize that we are facing a crisis in guardianship."
In addition to working on disability rights advocacy, Lincoln-McCreight works as a security officer in St. Lucie County. He loves spending time with friends, going to church, and volunteering. He lives on his own and has made it his mission to help others.
"I'm just proud," he said. "Proud to be where I'm at. They told me I would never get my rights back. Just look at me now."