© Britney Spears via Wiki Commons
Britney may be free from her conservatorship, but countless others across the US are in similar situations.
Britney Spears has been the topic of many internet discussions recently, due to her finally being freed from the conservatorship that her father used to control her for 13 years - in this conservatorship, she was unable to choose where she lived and even had reproductive decisions made for her. The general public was outraged at hearing about her situation, starting the #FreeBritney movement in support. The Netflix documentary ‘Britney vs. Spears’ garnered even more support for Britney, and on the 21st of November 2021, the conservatorship was terminated.
Britney’s newfound freedom is cause for celebration, but countless others across the US are stuck in similar conservatorships, something that disability advocates have been fighting against for years. Many people with intellectual disabilities are placed under conservatorships that can be abusive but don’t have the platform to garner public support in the way someone like Britney Spears can.
Conservatorships, also known as guardianships, are granted when somebody is physically or mentally unable to look after their own assets - in Britney’s case, her mental health meant that she was seen as unable to look after her own assets all the way back in 2008. For almost 14 years, Britney struggled to end her conservatorship, so just imagine how difficult it is for people without access to attorneys and lawyers.
It is estimated that 1.3 million adults live under conservatorships in the US. The majority of these cases involve the elderly but also affects young people with mental health issues, learning disabilities, and unhoused individuals.
Conservatorship, as a legal measure, is largely unregulated in regards to safeguarding. Britney’s case ‘provides an incomplete picture. There is a broader, systemic issue at play’. Disabled individuals often have their legal personhood stripped from them under the guise of guardianship. In conservatorship hearings, very few questions are asked: in theory, other avenues should be considered before going into guardianship. In practice, however, judges seem to rarely ask questions before allowing a conservatorship to go ahead.
One example of a disabled individual having their rights restricted due to conservatorship is the case of William Dean. William Dean, a resident of Maine, was an autistic musical prodigy who was hospitalized due to mental health issues in 2012 after losing his mother, and as such was placed under a conservatorship by local authorities. His conservators/guardians sold his home for half its assessed price, sold his musical instruments, and even euthanised his cat. His family became concerned and tried to sue, but it was ruled that the state was immune to liability and when Dean passed away in 2016, his remaining family got nothing.
Conservators generally have a great deal of power over conservatees, and there are very few checks on whether they are suitable to have this power. Conservatorship is supposed to act in the person’s best interest, so there needs to be more safeguarding surrounding these cases to make sure that if a conservatorship is to be implemented, then authorities need to be certain that it is absolutely the best course of action for the conservatee and that the conservator is suitable for that position. Conservatorships can be incredibly dehumanising for disabled individuals - “non-disabled adults make harmful decisions all the time, and they usually do not risk losing their civil rights for it. In this way, disability becomes a line through which different rights—or denial of rights—are articulated”. There’s a double-standard, in which if a non-disabled person makes an unhealthy choice regarding their own body then that’s their right, but if a disabled person makes an unhealthy choice regarding their own life or body they are seen to be unable to look after themselves. Making bad decisions is a natural part of life - if a non-disabled person chooses to eat cake for breakfast they’re seen as human, there’s no reason why a disabled person can’t make that same choice without having their rights and autonomy taken away from them.
There have been major flaws in this system for years, but Britney’s success in ending her conservatorship may be the push needed for lawmakers to finally address these issues that disability activists have been campaigning against for years.