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What is a Conservatorship

No one saw the abuse. Not until Britney Spears addressed the Los Angeles Superior Courts in July of 2019. 

In 2008, international pop-star Britney Spears was placed under the legal conservatorship, or guardianship, of her father, James “Jamie” Spears. She was still going on world tours, and to the public, it seemed all was well. On July 22, 2019, Ms. Spears spoke publicly for the first time in 13 years about the abuse she endured under her father. Since then, the hashtag “FreeBritney” swept across the internet, involving not only the public but also other high profile celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, Cher, and longtime friend Paris Hilton have spoken up about the conservatorship. #FreeBritney brought awareness not only to Ms. Spears’ situation, but also conservatorships in general.

According to the National Center for State Courts, there were an estimated 1.3 million Americans currently under an active conservatorship in 2016. The nonprofit organization, focused on improving judicial administration, defines a conservator as “an individual or entity authorized by a court to make property or financial decisions for an adult who the court determines is not able to make those decisions.” What exactly does this entail, and how was Britney Spears exploited through this legal mechanism. 

In 2008, after a series of public struggles, Jamie Spears petitioned to place Ms. Spears under a temporary conservatorship, which has now lasted for over a decade. The Judicial Council of California’s Handbook for Conservators gives many examples of of people who could be placed under a conservatorship, including “elderly people, and some younger people with temporary or permanent mental or physical disabilities,” as well as those who need assistance with cooking, cleaning, dressing, driving and getting around, keeping track of their money and other financial matters.

Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Disability Rights Project, spoke about disability rights in an interview with ACLU’s Eva Lopez. Brennan-Krohn broke down exactly what a conservatorship is, and how it impacts the people it is supposed to serve. 

“Conservatorship means the court is taking away the civil liberties from one person and giving them to someone else. Sometimes it’s ALL of that person’s civil rights and civil liberties, and sometimes it’s partial.” In the case of Ms. Spears, the control of her money was taken from her. She was forced to have an IUD, the choice of having a baby and getting engaged stolen from her. She was forced to go to rehab facilities, and could not visit her friends who live less than 10 minutes away. Mr. Spears had total control over finances, medications, who she saw, who she spoke with. 

The Handbook for Conservators notes that “All conservatees have the right to be treated with understanding and respect and to have their wishes considered. They have all basic human rights, as well, and the right to be well cared for by you.” Ms. Spears did not have those basic human rights. Brennan-Krohn said that this is not uncommon in cases of conservatorships, which are supposed to be used as a last resort, and that it is an issue the ACLU has been paying attention to as part of their disability rights work. Ms. Spears’ fame has garnered national attention and has brought conservatorships into the limelight, but “she is only one of untold thousands nationwide under or at risk of guardianship or conservatorship”. 

Conservatorships can only be lifted by a court. After advocating for her rights and being granted the ability to get a lawyer of her own choosing, Ms. Spears has successfully suspended her father’s role as conservator, and is moving towards fading out of the guardianship altogether. Her case is encouraging lawmakers to rethink conservatorships. 

Jenny Hatch, a 29-year-old woman from Virginia sued to end her guardianship. Hatch has Down-syndrome, and has been fighting her parents in court after they filed for guardianship against her will. Hatch’s living situation, medication, and social life was dictated by her parents. Her victory in court allows her to have civil liberties back. Disability advocates are urging courts to look at supported decision making. Rather than conservatorships, this system allows people with disabilities to make their own decisions with the support of others instead of having decisions made for them without their consent. 

Ms. Spears has endured a loss of freedom over the past 13 years and is now on her way to living her life without the control of others. She has gotten engaged and has been seen out and about more often. This case has raised awareness to the detrimental effects of conservatorships and hopefully encourage courts to look more closely at the systems they have in place. 

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