Experts to senators: Free Britney … and other people in toxic conservatorships

It’s not just Britney Spears, a Senate subcommittee heard Tuesday

Members of Free Britney America hold a rally by the Capitol Reflecting Pool in Washington on Saturday, ahead of the latest court date for the pop star seeking release from her conservatorship.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Members of Free Britney America hold a rally by the Capitol Reflecting Pool in Washington on Saturday, ahead of the latest court date for the pop star seeking release from her conservatorship. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 28, 2021 at 7:42pm

Britney Spears didn’t testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, but her high-profile conservatorship came up a lot during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

“Spears’ story is not a singular or isolated incident,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution. “The only thing that’s unusual about Britney Spears’ story is that people are paying attention.”

Senators seized the moment to stage a larger discussion of conservatorships, choosing a week when interest is running high as Spears prepares for her next day in court Wednesday amid public calls to “Free Britney.”

Titled “Toxic Conservatorships” in an apparent nod to one of the pop star’s catchy singles, the hearing delved into potential problems with the court-determined arrangements, which are most common among older people and people with disabilities. When a person is found to have diminished decision-making capacity, their rights can be put into the hands of a conservator or guardian. Spears’ case, which has been the focus of documentarians and internet sleuths looking for subliminal pleas on her Instagram page, has put a spotlight on what can go wrong.

“It is the most restrictive form of oversight a court can place on an individual outside of the criminal context, sometimes referred to as the civil death penalty,” said David Slayton, vice president of court consulting services at the National Center for State Courts in Bellevue, Texas.   

The process seeks to protect people with diminished capacity from abuse or exploitation and typically does that, but it sometimes can become a tool of abuse. And once someone is in a conservatorship, like in the case of the star of the 2002 film “Crossroads,” it’s very difficult to get out.  

During the hearing, Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and ranking member Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican — who reiterated that he is a supporter of the Free Britney movement — appeared to be the only senators in attendance. 

Nicholas Clouse, 28, a warehouse forklift operator who lives in Huntington, Ind., testified that he was placed in a conservatorship with his parents after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car crash. He said he was left with memory loss, and worried that someone might take advantage of him if he were to receive a large sum of money after a personal injury lawsuit.  

“They told me to sign a piece of paper and that would help them take care of the lawsuit so I could focus on recovery,” he said. 

Eventually the situation became constricting. He described having to borrow money from his wife to get gas so he could drive to work, because his guardian denied him money he had earned. 

“I had no control over my paychecks and had to get permission from my stepfather to buy diapers for my daughter,” he said. Clouse felt worthless being unable to provide for his family, despite having a full-time job.

Different solutions

Also testifying Tuesday were a range of legal experts and advocates for people with disabilities.

“Most conservators are trying to do right for someone they care about,” said Clarissa Kripke, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. 

Kripke also directs a program focused on the rights and interests of patients who have trouble communicating and said she has firsthand experience with her daughter who cannot speak and requires help with daily activities. She said a conservatorship, which many seek to make sure their loved one has access to medical care, isn’t always necessary. 

A model of supported decision-making might better serve the person because it allows the person to retain autonomy and because conservatorships “encourage health care providers to focus on who is authorized to make your medical decision, instead of on the patient.” 

The witnesses also said guardianships can lead to fraud or financial exploitation, and the system lacks necessary checks and balances. “That’s why you can see some really egregious cases of financial abuse,” said Morgan Whitlatch, legal director at Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities. 

The witnesses said the federal government may be able to reduce abuse of guardianships and make it easier for people to regain constitutional rights by collecting more data about what’s happening. It could also incentivize states to make changes in their own systems to provide less restrictive alternatives.

#FreeBritney 

Over the weekend, members of the Free Britney America group protested in front of the Capitol, demanding Spears be released from her arrangement. The “Free Britney” movement has gained steam in recent years and surged this summer after the pop star said she felt exploited and had been forced to remain on birth control. 

“As we start this week of which is going to be a very exciting one filled with many emotions, we hope Britney feels the outpour of love & support as her fans & advocates alike rally around the world for her freedom! Here’s hoping that the 29th is a great day for Britney and the #FreeBritney movement,” the group posted to its instagram after the event.

The Senate hearing was held less than 24 hours before Spears was set to be in court Wednesday for a status hearing on her own conservatorship. Her father, James P. Spears, the conservator of her estate since 2008, announced in August that he intended to step aside after a protracted battle. 

Cruz asked disability advocate Whitlatch whether stories like Spears’ or Clouse’s were rare. “I wish I could say they’re uncommon stories,” she said. “They’re not uncommon stories.” 

Once in a guardianship, getting out can prove to be extremely difficult and time consuming. “It’s very common to not be able to have a phone, not be able to have access to the internet and not have access to your money,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a disability rights programs attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “So you're going to hitchhike into town and hope you find your way to a lawyer?” 

Clouse said the feelings of worthlessness he dealt with are gone now that he has won freedom from his conservatorship, but it wasn't easy. After finding the resources to help him fight for his freedom in court, the process took nearly 18 months. 

He called on the panel to find solutions to make sure his story isn’t shared by others.

“If it was this difficult and complicated to be released from unnecessary guardianship, I cannot imagine what it is like for those who are not as privileged,” Clouse said. “We need better protections to keep this from happening.”