The Dangers Of Conservatorships Go Way Beyond Britney Spears

Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images.
Because of an "abusive," "demoralizing" conservatorship, Britney Spears says she has had virtually no control over her career, finances, medical treatment, and even personal life for 13 years. In emotional testimony at a June 23 court hearing, Spears shared a list of the indignities and violations she says she's been subjected to — including abruptly and inexplicably having to take a strong mood stabilizer and being forced to keep an IUD so she can't have more children.
During her passionate plea to a judge to end her conservatorship without undergoing another examination, Spears made one thing clear: conservatorships can be incredibly dangerous. "I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive, and that we can sit here all day and say oh, conservatorships are here to help people," Spears said. "But ma’am, there is a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well."
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Spears' conservatorship is a unique case, given her massive celebrity — but also, given her age and apparent ability to handle the same kinds of strenuous, high-pressure, and high-impact situations her conservatorship implies she can't. While she was deemed unable to make her own decisions regarding her finances, health, and career, she also released four albums (including the chart-toppers Circus and Femme Fatale), judged The X Factor, went on tour several times, and performed nearly 250 times in a Las Vegas residency. She petitioned for her conservatorship to end in 2009, to no avail; and, according to court documents obtained by The New York Times, she has been trying to have her father, Jamie Spears, removed as her conservator for at least seven years. 
"She articulated she feels the conservatorship has become an oppressive and controlling tool against her," a court investigator wrote in 2016, according to The Times. The records alleged that she was forced to perform and stay at a mental health facility, and was not even allowed to choose the colour of her own kitchen cabinets. All along, her father was taking a sizable cut of the proceeds from everything Spears did. At a 2020 hearing, a lawyer for Spears' mother, Lynne Spears, alleged that Jamie once called his daughter "a racehorse who has to be handled like one."
But as Spears mentioned, she isn't the only one under conservatorship in the U.S., and she isn't the only one struggling with a lack of autonomy and inability to challenge her guardianship. Typically, conservatorships are reserved for people with dementia and other cognitive disabilities: Essentially, as attorney Don Slater told Vice, they "strip away a person's ability to make their own decisions." And because these decisions include legal ones, an individual under conservatorship has little opportunity to challenge it. In Spears' case, she said at her hearing that she hasn't been allowed to choose her own attorney
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"Ultimately, I think it's an attack on a person's dignity," columnist Chandra Bozelko tells Refinery29. Like Spears, Bozelko was under conservatorship from 2005 to 2014. As she wrote in a 2020 op-ed for NBC News, Bozelko's parents disagreed with her decision to fight criminal charges brought against her, and she was placed under a guardianship without any notice or hearing. She tells Refinery29 that she wasn't interviewed or assessed by any doctor — instead, her parents recruited a doctor she'd never met to write a report of incapacity. "It's traumatizing. And it got to the core of my understanding of myself in a way that the criminal justice system did not."
Experts agree that conservatorships are dangerous because they're so easy to get into and difficult to end. Bozelko points to Spears' mannerisms in her 24-minute testimony: She sounds stable and clear, but also angry and exhausted. She's speaking rapidly, trying to share a long and complicated story after holding it back for years. "It makes you crazy, right? Because you're fighting to say 'No, my choices matter,' or 'You can't do this to me,' or even to say, 'This is illegal.' You start to sound paranoid," Bozelko says. "So it actually makes you look like you need a conservatorship when you fight it."
Some guardians have faced legal action for repeatedly abusing and stealing from their conservatees. In a 2017 deep-dive for The New Yorker, writer Rachel Aviv spoke with some of the victims of professional guardians like April Parks, a woman deemed responsible for as many as 100 "mentally incapacitated" people. Parks faced over 200 felony charges for financially abusing and stealing from her conservatees.
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One woman quoted in Aviv's article, Terry Williams, was listed as the executor of her father's will. Still, his estate was taken over by a professional guardian. Williams tried to file a racketeering suit against the guardian, but her case was dismissed. "They are trumping up ways and means to deem people incompetent and take their assets," Williams told Aviv. Echoing Bozelko's thoughts, she said, "The scheme is ingenious. How do you come up with a crime that literally none of the victims can articulate without sounding like they're nuts? The same insane allegations keep surfacing from people who don't know each other."
Despite it being difficult to identify — and even more complicated to stop — conservatorship abuse is very real. Different states have different practices, and limited data and research make it almost impossible to track conservatees and potential patterns of financial and medical abuse. As Bozelko points out, this also makes it difficult to identify whether certain communities are disproportionately facing abuse within this system. "It's inconceivable that you would have a population of people whose rights are taken away and you don't know the gender, racial, or age demographics of them," she says.
Some conservators are less outwardly malicious. Zoe Brennan-Krohn, an attorney with the ACLU's Disability Rights Project, says that many well-meaning people and families seek conservatorships in good faith — but they aren't aware that there are less invasive, less restrictive options. 
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"Conservatorships should truly be used as the last resort, where there really aren't any other options that are less restrictive for a person with disabilities to direct their own lives. But that is very, very rare," Brennan-Krohn tells Refinery29.
The issue of conservatorships and guardianships is inherently a disability rights issue, she explains, because they're granted when a court has determined that someone has a disability, be it psychiatric, developmental, intellectual, or age-related. "Conservatorships tend to be, really, a first resort in a lot of cases, when someone has a psychiatric crisis, or a young person with intellectual and developmental disabilities turns 18, or people age into disabilities like dementia."
Bozelko also clarifies that not every conservatorship is automatically abusive. "But when a person has their own opinions and has a different stance than what conservators or lawyers or even the court wants for her, I'd say that [a conservatorship is] inherently abusive," she says. In Spears' case, "We took a woman who was on top of the world, silenced her for 12 years, and took all of her rights. And the courts and lawyers were completely fine with that."
Practices and processes vary by state, but Spears' case has specifically shed some light on how conservatorships work — and exploit people — in California. In March, California Assemblymember Evan Low and State Senators John Laird and Ben Allen introduced legislation aiming to prevent conservatorship fraud and abuse. Low's bill, AB 1194, would create registration requirements for conservators, and also "toughen laws" to revoke a conservator’s rights if they aren't acting in the best interest of their client. 
"We know that many of the people placed in conservatorships are seniors and there are good actors — children, siblings, and parents — who are trying their best to protect their loved ones. But there are also conservators taking advantage of people who are vulnerable to abuse," Low said in a statement. "AB 1194 will pull back the curtain on what's happening with conservatorships in California and bring long-overdue accountability and transparency."
Spears might have once seemed like she had it all, but after 13 years of control, her desires are simple: She wants her conservatorship to end without an evaluation. "I'd like for my boyfriend to be able to drive me in his car. And I want to meet with a therapist once a week, not twice a week. And I want him to come to my home," she said in her testimony. "I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so. And that's all I wanted to say to you."

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