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Britney Spears case casts harsh light on conservatorships

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The Hill
The Hill
 2021-06-24
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Britney Spears's cries for help in court have cast a critical light on conservatorships, as the public has become both more aware and more sensitive to mental health struggles. But her explosive claims Wednesday have also reignited a national conversation on freedom, dignity and how much is too much when it comes to legal intervention.

Spears spoke out publicly for the first time about her "abusive" 13-year conservatorship during a status hearing before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. The "Stronger" singer — whose father, Jamie Spears, has headed up her conservatorship since 2008 following her very public mental health and substance abuse battles — said she's been left "traumatized" by it.

She also fired off a list of shocking allegations, saying she wants to get married and have another baby, but had been forced against her will to leave in place a birth control device. Spears also alleged that she has been required to work, undergo endless psychiatric evaluations and take anti-psychotic medication that left her feeling "drunk."

"I've been so angry, and I cry every day," Spears, 39, told the judge.

"I just want my life back, and it's been 13 years, and it's enough," she said.

The bombshell statements set off a firestorm of reactions and messages of support from around the globe.

Pundits on both sides of the aisle — and some who don't typically weigh in on the plights of pop stars — denounced the long-running conservatorship, expressing particular horror at Spears's accusation that she is restricted from making decisions about her body and fertility.

"How is what has been done to Britney Spears not a human rights crime?" questioned "The View" co-host Meghan McCain .

"Isolation, controlling her capacity to reproduce without her consent, forcing her to work under inhumane conditions. If she were any other person the people who did this to her would be in jail," McCain wrote on Twitter.

"A grown-ass man, father or not, has no right to tell a woman what she can and can’t do with her body. Britney Spears is being held hostage by her father," Raleigh Bowman, a Democratic House candidate in Illinois, tweeted.

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol said Thursday, "I came into the office this morning looking forward to discussing with my brilliant young colleagues voting rights, infrastructure, the January 6th panel, how RCV [ranked-choice voting] is working in NYC, and more." Instead, Kristol said, "The overwhelming consensus of the office on the day’s key issue: #FreeBritney."

It was a sentiment echoed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Twitter on Thursday.

Spears's story — buoyed by a New York Times-Hulu documentary earlier this year, "Framing Britney Spears" — has garnered her an army of fans rallying around her through the "Free Britney" movement while also shining a spotlight on the world of court-ordered conservatorships.

"I think conservatorship often happens behind closed doors, and people don't understand what it is or how significant an impact it can have on a person's life," said Nina Kohn, a Syracuse University law professor and a distinguished scholar in elder law at Yale Law School. "Seeing a young woman with so much talent in this position really makes people question what is this institution and why is it being applied, in a way that can both lead to some misunderstandings about the process and potentially some insights about what might be wrong with it."

As of 2017, there were about 1.3 million active adult guardianship or conservatorship cases in the United States, according to the Justice Department, with at least $50 billion in assets under conservatorships.

In March, as buzz was growing around the Spears documentary, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.) called on the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on conservatorships.

“In recent years, there has been growing public concern about the use of conservatorships to effectively deprive individuals of personal freedoms at the behest of others through the manipulation of the courts,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to panel Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“The most striking example is perhaps the case of multi-platinum performing artist Britney Spears," they added.

Neither Jordan or Gaetz, nor Nadler, responded to requests for comment from ITK about Spears's court appearance or if there had been any movement on a proposed conservatorship hearing.

For fans of the megawatt star, the unusual case offers a personal connection to a complex legal arrangement. Skyrocketing to fame at the age of 17 with her debut 1998 hit, "...Baby One More Time," Spears has been in the public eye for more than half her life.

Kohn, who has advocated for the reform of conservatorship and guardianship laws, said this week's striking court showdown could help spur changes nationwide. But that would only happen, she said, if "the public could understand that what we're seeing here is a potentially predictable result of current laws and understood that there are really simple, straightforward changes that could be made to substantially reduce the risk."

"We need to make it harder for conservators to be appointed [and] easier for conservatorships or guardianships ... to be terminated. And we need to substantially narrow the scope of conservatorships or guardianships that are granted," she said.

After Spears delivered her blistering remarks, an attorney for her father said during the court hearing that Jamie Spears is "sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain."

Yet for all the outpouring of support Spears has received since her impassioned remarks in court, conservatorship proponents could argue that the world is getting a one-sided look at the issue based solely on her version. There is no way to know if she suffers from a "catastrophic illness" — one reason listed for a conservatorship being potentially necessary by the San Francisco County Superior Court.

"With the right genes, healthy living, and luck, most people will escape being incapacitated," the court writes on an informational page, while acknowledging the number of conservatorships is likely to increase over time. "Fortunately, the California legislature has mandated many court safeguards for those who need conservatorships."

But Kohn said that "even if we're only seeing one side, we're seeing enough to be concerned about how this process is impacting a person's life."

Kohn predicts that the entertainer and mother of two's attorney will soon petition the court to terminate the conservatorship, or narrow the scope of the conservator's powers "given that [she] clearly articulated that's what she wants."

"I am hopeful that the Spears’s case will spark meaningful law reform by exposing the very real costs of over-broad guardianships and conservatorships — and the unnecessary difficulty faced by those who seek to terminate or modify them," Kohn said. "So maybe some good can come out of this heartbreaking saga."

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