After Britney Spears testimony, lawmakers push adjustments to conservatorship legal guidelines | Legislation (US)

Last week Britney Spears testified in court about the conservatory that has long controlled her life, finding that a thousand people were stuck in “abusive” arrangements like hers.

In California, lawmakers have responded to international outrage over the singer’s peculiar legal system with reform proposals aimed at expanding the rights and rule of law of people in conservatories.

Disability rights activists say changes to the process are long overdue but do not go far enough to overhaul a system that has long been shrouded in secrecy. “The United States likes to brag about freedom and poke its nose at other countries where human rights are restricted. But we have to look in the mirror, ”said Rebecca Cokley, disability rights activist. “As terrible as the case of Britney Spears is, people with fewer privileges have far worse.”

1.3 million adults among conservatories

Conservatories are a form of court-appointed guardianship that gives licensed conservators or family members the power to make important decisions on behalf of individuals who are deemed incapable of acting and unable to regulate their own affairs. This can include controlling people’s finances and health care.

An estimated 1.3 million adults are under guardianship in the US, and proponents say the system is opaque with little surveillance or data. The legal regulation is most common for the elderly, but also often affects people with intellectual disabilities and the homeless.

Allegations of abuse around the system are very common and go back decades.

The disability rights movement’s struggle against conservatories intensified in the 1960s as part of a broader pursuit of autonomy, said Jasmine E. Harris, law professor and disability rights expert at the University of Pennsylvania. Activists have questioned the notion that “just because we have a diagnosis we cannot make decisions, or we are infantilized or perceived as being suspected of being dangerous to ourselves or others”.

Britney Spears supporters gather for a hearing on the star’s Conservatory case. Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / REX / Shutterstock

Over the years, lawyers have come to protect themselves. In 1999, after two women with developmental disabilities were sued in Georgia for being admitted to psychiatric hospitals, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Olmstead case that people with disabilities must have access to services in facilities that are as integrated as possible. In 2013, Jenny Hatch, a Virginia woman with Down syndrome, successfully challenged her conservatory, which had given her parents tight control over their lives, and paved the way for other adults with disabilities to gain independence.

But the conservatory industry has remained ripe for abuse, proponents say. A 2005 LA Times investigation found widespread examples of seniors falling under the control of for-profit restorers whose fate was determined in court hearings that sometimes lasted only a few minutes. The paper also uncovered cases where professional guardians had isolated their conservatives from their families and depleted their finances.

A 2018 report by the National Council on Disability found that guardianships are often unjustifiably imposed, that courts fail to enforce state laws that require less restrictive alternatives to be examined, and that procedures to restore their rights are seldom used.

Local governments have continued to use conservatories to force unhodged people with mental illness off the streets and into institutions. In these cases, “Conservatory is incarceration,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “It can be worse than a prison. In a conservatory one often lies in a bed and cannot move freely. “

Trying to provide psychiatric services through compulsory treatment is costly and ineffective, she added.

Fixed a “fundamental bug”

California has previously reformed the conservatory system, but many of the proposed changes were underfunded or not implemented. Lawmakers say the Spears case suggests the system requires significantly more oversight.

“The law is designed to protect people who cannot protect themselves,” MP Evan Low said in an interview, adding that he found Spears’ report of the abuse “staggering”.

The California legislature has responded to the outcry over the legal regulation of the singer with reform proposals.The California legislature has responded to the outcry over the legal regulation of the singer with reform proposals. Photo: Axelle / Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic

Low has enacted laws that would require non-professional restorers (like Spears’ father) to register with the state if they oversee estates in excess of $ 1 million, requiring professionals involved in conservatories to do theirs Making fees transparent and creating guidelines for fines or revocations create the licenses of restorers who are not acting in the best interests of the individual.

A second bill aims to fill the gap in due process by guaranteeing Conservatives or Proposed Conservatives the right to legal counsel and allowing them to choose a lawyer. This bill would also expand the duties of court investigators to review cases and establish regular reviews of conservatories for adults with developmental disabilities.

“Look at how far your life is not your own. She’s unable to make fundamental decisions, ”said Senator Ben Allen, who tabled Spears’ second bill. “This is an extraordinary encroachment on a person’s life and freedom. Before we put people in such a situation, we need to make sure that there is solid oversight and opportunities to question them. “

Proponents of the current court-appointed attorney system say the rules are designed to protect incapacitated people from being exploited by a attorney, but Allen noted that attorneys are already subject to ethical rules.

Bertha Sanchez Hayden, an attorney at Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit that works with low-income seniors and families on conservatory cases, said conservatories are, in some cases, the best way to connect people with services and public benefits, and that in In her experience in LA, “people are always very careful that the voices of the Conservatives are heard”. She said she supported calls for better checks and balances, but didn’t want the whole process to be “stigmatized” because of the Spears case.

Britney Spears supporters gather before a court hearing.Britney Spears supporters gather before a court hearing. Photo: Chris Pizzello / AP

However, some proponents have argued that the proposed law does not go far enough to address underlying civil rights concerns, as the bills are built on a judicial system that has repeatedly failed to defend people with disabilities.

“The court’s assessment of a person’s performance is often devoid of any scientific or conclusive basis,” said Cokley, the Ford Foundation’s disability rights program officer. “The point is that we don’t trust this person to make their own decisions.”

She and others have argued that reform efforts should focus on investing in alternatives, such as the “assisted decision-making” model, which enables people with disabilities to retain the right to make decisions while they are people in their lives choose who will help you. Some states now formally recognize this as the preferred alternative.

Harris said a commission independent from the courts should look into conservatoire cases, but added that these agreements should generally be a “last resort”. “The idea that someone’s decision-making requires that kind of nuclear option where they take away all of their rights, not just those that they might need a little more support with … is a fundamental mistake,” she said.

With Spears and other Conservatives, she added, “You should start from the premise that she is in this system when she may not be.”

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