Conservatorships aren’t just a Britney issue — they’re a civil rights issue

September 6, 2021 — by Tara Natarajan
Photo by Frederic J. Brown via vox.com
The singer’s supporters rally near the Los Angeles courthouse where her conservatorship case is being heard.

In 2007, pop superstar Britney Spears shocked the world when she suffered a series of public mental breakdowns. Spears’ erratic behavior included spontaneously shaving her head, driving with her infant son in her lap, smashing a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella and refusing to surrender her children in a police stand-off. 

Various media outlets publicized her mental health crisis, which went down as one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the era. By the end of 2008, the singer’s father, Jamie Spears, successfully petitioned the court for a temporary conservatorship over his daughter’s financial, legal and personal affairs due to her unstable condition. The conservatorship, which granted Jamie Spears and his co-conservators almost complete control over his daughter, was extended indefinitely soon after and has been in effect since. 

In 2019, the #FreeBritney movement gained traction online. Thousands of fans advocated for Spears’ freedom through social media campaigns and a Change.org petition that received over 300,000 signatures, and in 2021 The New York Times released the explosive documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” Spears finally spoke out about the situation this year, requesting a judge to end the conservatorship. She was granted the ability to choose her own lawyer, and the case against her father was set in motion. Although her father resigned as conservator of Spears’ personal affairs in 2019 and has recently stepped down as her financial conservator, Spears still isn’t free of her conservatorship — her father was replaced with care manager Jodi Montgomery in 2019 and Spears will be appointed a different financial guardian, who is unknown at this time.

Britney Spears’ fight for freedom isn’t just a turning point for the singer — it is a landmark case and an unprecedented opportunity for the approximate 1.3 million adults currently living under the control of court-ordered conservatorships to have their situation brought to light. 

The publicity around #FreeBritney revealed heinous civil rights violations disabled individuals often face at the hands of their conservators. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups and practices have been advocating against conservatorships behind the scenes for years, and the Britney Spears case has given them an opportunity to campaign in the public eye.

While Spears’ diagnosis is undisclosed, a court can only grant conservatorship upon identification of a serious physical, psychiatric, developmental, intellectual or age-related disability. A conservatorship places the individual under partial, or in Spears’ case, complete control of their designated guardian. 

According to ACLU disability rights attorney Zoe Brennan-Krohn, Spears’s father and his co-conservators restricted almost all aspects of his daughter’s autonomy, while profiting from her $59 million estate. The kind of control a conservator holds can often lead to financial, emotional or physical abuse. Additionally, it is extremely difficult for an individual to legally exit conservatorship, since it can only be lifted by a court order. That said, the arrangement strips disabled individuals of their civil rights and liberties, which makes it a pressing civil and disability rights issue. 

Conservators are given the benefit of the doubt as the system assumes benevolence and goodwill on the guardian’s part, which oftentimes is not the reality. Disabled individuals are already four to ten times more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect— placing them in a situation where they have no autonomy is dangerous and unnecessary. The disabled often are denied basic freedoms on the basis of their condition.

A common argument in favor of conservatorships is that conservatees with physical and mental disabilities may not be able to make the best decisions for themselves, and they need someone else to choose on their behalf. 

However, there are many solutions outside of total conservatorship. Supported decision-making, according to the ACLU, is a process that allows disabled individuals to make their own decisions with the support of a trusted and legally appointed advisor. It helps the individual retain their rights while receiving the help they need. This option has been gaining popularity as a safer alternative to conservatorship. Other options include powers of attorney, joint bank accounts, healthcare surrogacy and community living. 

All of these arrangements encourage autonomy while simultaneously providing necessary support. Limited conservatorship should be an absolute last resort. There is no real excuse to trample an individual’s rights due to their disability; it places them in a dangerous situation that is extremely difficult to escape and imposes a subhuman status upon them. 

When every aspect of a person’s life is controlled by another, self-advocacy is overwhelmingly difficult, which is why Britney Spears’ public bid for freedom counts for more than just herself: It shines a spotlight on upwards of a million disabled individuals living under harsh conservatorships and conservator abuse. 

Bringing the previously ignored problem into the public eye has the potential to lead to increased activism and pushback against conservatorships, especially for those who have neither the publicity nor the resources available to Spears. Britney Spears’ fight is not an isolated celebrity issue — it should be a milestone for civil liberties for disabled individuals, an even more important movement. 

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