How the Free Britney movement can help disability rights
By Heather Mims
Glenn Francis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Updated August 19.
Britney Spears is a multimillionaire, famous the world over and a megastar for decades now. Yet for 13 years she has not been able to go to Starbucks on her own or buy flowers for her room without consulting her father, who until recently made all her personal and financial decisions for her. Was she in need of such supervision? Maybe. But it is also possible she, along with many others, suffered from an abuse of power within a conservatorship, also known as guardianships in some states.
Though she may be America’s best-known conservatee, there are more than a million people living in the same situation, usually due to the effects of aging or physical or mental disabilities. Roger George, whose family was known for its work in the film industry, says his mother, Donna, was put into a hospice because his sister no longer wanted to take care of her. Donna thought she was going to rehab. Instead she was put into a special needs trust without an evaluation and, according to her son, shows no cognitive decline. Roger and his sister may be evicted from their property to pay his mother’s bills and the salary of Jodi Montgomery, a professional conservator with her own practice who is both Donna’s personal conservator and who was made a member of Britney Spears’ conservatorship team starting in 2019.
Or take the case of Alan Fantin. Fantin sustained substantial injuries in a car accident at age 14. Though he had $3 million in a trust, he only received $2,000 a month, with $30,000 in fees going to his last conservator, who did not like his lifestyle, which included using marijuana to help with his pain, causing a struggle to prove his competency. Now at 51 he finally has a home and has regained financial ground.
One criticism of conservatorships is how paternalistic they can be. That Britney Spears even needs this level of protection is debatable. She is rumored to be bipolar. If so, millions of sufferers lead normal lives with therapy and medication, and without conservatorships. Her “meltdown” in 2007 included a head shaving (not against the law), a lackluster MTV VMA performance, beating up a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella (not totally unreasonable given the way she was hounded) and a teary moment when she had to give back her kids during a visit, not ideal but not outside the bounds of a young mother’s behavior. Even the 5150, the police code for intercepting the mentally ill, that led to her involuntary hospitalization, was planned in advance by the LAPD. It is normally a spontaneous call when someone is threatening to hurt someone else or themselves.Along those lines restriction of reproductive freedom can also come with a conservatorship. Spears alleges she is forced to have an IUD implanted in her. Up until 1979, it was legal to sterilize the disabled without their consent within the state of California. If Spears cannot marry or have children without her father’s permission, has anything really changed? Laws vary from state to state.
Conservatorships can be catch-22s. If you are doing well, why change the arrangement? If you are not, it’s a case of “See, she/he needed it.” The very act of resisting the arrangement can make the conservatee seem unreasonable or defiant — traits conservators use as evidence of incompetence.
Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights project, suggests the idea of supported decision making to help a conservatee become more autonomous. If you need help with a budget or planning a schedule, someone can help. An app can remind you to take medicine or lock the doors. It has been alleged that Spears, for example, tends to let the wrong people into her life. If that’s true, a more effective security detail could help. Even someone close to the conservatee who might have power of attorney might be a far less restrictive but protective measure.
Spears’ situation has attracted the attention of politicians of both parties. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma) has asked for data regarding conservatorship abuse. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl), among others, has expressed support and invited Britney to testify in front of Congress. Most promising is the bipartisan Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act sponsored by both Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla), which states that a conservatee can petition for an independent caseworker to oversee the work of the conservator and monitor any abuse.
Spears’ situation has brought to light the variety of abuses that can happen for the disabled in this situation. With greater awareness and political action, those living under such arrangements can live freer, more independent lives while having a support system to keep them from being so — well, overprotected.
Heather Mims is a former clerk reporter with the Charlotte Observer. She lives with her cat, D’onofrio.
Congresswoman Nancy Mace offered this statement to the Mercury:
Conservatorships were designed to protect people, but we have seen from the case of Britney Spears, the abusive, dark underbelly of the conservatorship system. Under the Free Britney Act, all Americans would retain the right to be represented by an independent person to avoid any financial and/or personal conflicts of interests, as we have seen in Ms. Spears’s case.
The conservatorship process — meant to protect vulnerable persons — should not be abused to further victimize anybody or strip them of their rights. If this could happen to Britney Spears, then it can happen to anyone.”
The Free Britney Act is designed to protect the rights of legally incompetent adults who are the subject of a legal guardianship or conservatorship by making a grant available to pay the salary “of state employees who are serving as caseworkers for, legal guardians of, or conservators for legally incompetent adults, and to cover related administrative expenses. This is due to the fact that private guardians are at risk for financial conflicts of interest, because a ward’s assets, which they usually control, are used to pay the guardian for their services.” Additionally, the bill cites that conservatees have often not yet had a chance to appear in court themselves and have no legal authority to petition for a change of guardian.