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CULTURE

“Toxic” Conservatorship Becomes A Fight for Disability Rights

Britney Spears recently won her 13-year battle against the conservatorship of her person and her estate.

#FreeBritney protesters outside of an LA courthouse. Photo Courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine.

Britney Spears won her 13-year battle against the conservatorship of her person and her estate, which has shifted the public’s attention to the issue of disability rights as they relate to exploitative and abusive guardianship.

In 2008, amidst her public struggle with mental health, pop star Britney Spears was placed under an indefinite conservatorship of her estate and financial affairs by her father, James “Jamie” Spears. The conservatorship had been active for 13 years until Friday, Nov. 12, when it was terminated in a Los Angeles courtroom. Spears’ struggle and ultimate victory shed light on the issue of conservatorship within the disabled community, as the case has been deemed by many proponents of the #FreeBritney movement, a matter of disability rights.

The official website of the California courts defines conservatorship as “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the ‘conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.” In Spears’ case, the guardianship restricted her ability to access her finances and make decisions regarding her career. Court documents obtained by CNN also suggest that the conservator had control over her medical care and therapy, as well as her ability to get married and have children.

According to the AARP, about 1.5 million adults are currently under a kind of conservatorship, the overwhelming majority of which are individuals that have been identified as disabled, and deemed unable to care for themselves by their conservators. Whether intentional or not, it is often that conservators miscategorize their conservatees.

A recent development based on documents mentioned in the BBC documentary, “The Battle for Britney,” Jamie Spears had checked a box stating “dementia placement or treatment” as a reason for the conservatorship in 2008. According to Jamie Spears’ lawyers, “[Conservatorship was] necessary to protect Britney in every sense of the word…Her life was in shambles and she was in physical, emotional, mental and financial distress.”

In December of 2020, Jamie Spears told CNN, “When a family member needs special care and protection, families need to step up, as I have done for the last 12-plus years, to safeguard, protect and continue to love Britney unconditionally.”

Jamie Spears’ presence in his daughter’s life at the onset of her mental health crisis raised the concerns of those close to the singer, as many stated that he was not a fixture in her life before these incidents. In “Framing Britney Spears,” the 2021 Hulu documentary chronicling the life of Britney Spears, Kim Kaiman- former senior director of marketing at Jive Records (Britney Spears’ record label)- told The New York Times, “[Britney’s mother ] Lynne supported Britney. I want to say Lynne because I never talked to her father. The only thing Jamie ever said to me was, ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat.’ That’s all I’m gonna say about Jamie.”

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The inconsistencies between the conservator’s claims that the conservatee was unable to function outside of the conservatorship, and the fact that Spears was able to tour, release music, attend interviews, and judge competitions shows also added to public concerns. In October of 2018, co-conservator of Britney Spears’ finances, Andrew Wallet even asked for a raise, citing that “The conservatee’s business activities have greatly accelerated due to her increased well being and her capacity to be more engaged in furthering her career activities. The next several years promise to be very lucrative for the conservatorship estate…This conservatorship should be viewed more as a hybrid business model.” 

On several occasions, however, Britney has referred to the conservatorship as abusive. In a transcript of Britney Spears’ statement against their conservatorship obtained by Variety, she states, “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive, and that we can sit here all day and say oh, conservatorships are here to help people. But ma’am, there is a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well.”

The high-profile nature and significant social media traction of Britney’s story have raised concerns on the impact that conservatorships may have on the lives of people under abusive guardianship. Because, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “People only end up under conservatorships or guardianships if a court identifies them as having disabilities”, abusive or otherwise exploitative conservatorship is considered a disability rights issue.

Ryan King, a then-33 year-old disabled resident of Northwest Washington, and employee at the Georgia Avenue Safeway, shared his feelings surrounding his life under legal guardianship with the Washington Post. “Everyone needs a little help sometimes. I don’t know anyone who knows everything. But just because people need a little bit of help doesn’t mean they can’t be independent.” said King. Even with his parents’ request for the termination of their son’s conservatorship after acknowledging his ability to make decisions for himself after more than a decade, King was denied release by the D.C. judge.

“What’s especially dangerous about conservatorships is they are typically viewed as harmless, including by courts and judges who impose them routinely. This is part of society’s paternalism and infantilization of people with disabilities,” said staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project Zoe Brennan-Krohn. Brennan-Khron emphasizes the ease with which life-changing decisions can be made on behalf of an adult without regard for their desires, solely based on the fact that they are disabled.

“Sometimes I think about how, as an autistic person, I am extremely lucky that guardianship was not part of my adult life. I was once non-speaking and it was unclear what kind of support I would need as an adult. The support I needed as a little kid is not the same I needed as a college student, nor is that the same as the support I can use in my post-schooling life,”, Haley Moss, lawyer and supporter of the #FreeBritney movement stated in an article for Teen Vogue.

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Moss also stated in a post to her Twitter accountT, “To #FreeBritney is to take a step forward to free the many disabled adults who are under conservatorships…To free Britney is to free all of us.” 

The recent conversation surrounding conservatorship abuse has begun to prompt lawmakers to take action against the issue. Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida and Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina have proposed the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act, also cited as the Free Britney Act. If signed into law, the bill would allow conservatees the option to petition the court to replace their private conservator with a public one, similar to how Britney requested that her father be replaced by a bank as conservator of her estate. 

In a related statement, Brennan-Krohn affirmed that, “All people with disabilities have a right to lead self-directed lives and retain their civil rights as much as possible. What that looks like will be different for different people — some have significant support needs for some or all of their lives. But as a society we need to find ways to support people with disabilities and recognize that they are individuals with a full range of human experiences and preferences who have the right to exercise their civil liberties.”

Copy edited by Lauryn Wilson

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