Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle offers jolt to reform motion, advocates say

When Rick and Terri Black received a check for their son’s high school graduation in a strange handwriting from their father, they led to something even more worrisome: his longtime companion had transferred about $ 200,000 of his money to a joint bank account they shared with him shared.

When they asked Terri Black’s father Delford Mencarelli, who was increasingly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and his partner Helen Natko about the transfer, a confrontation ensued that led to a dispute over his guardianship. In court documents, Natko said she made the bank transfer to pay for Mencarelli’s health care bills and is best aware of his medical needs.

Ultimately, the guardianship commissioner overseeing the case said Mencarelli’s disability, which made him confused and excited about being around unfamiliar people and places, meant that he should stay in Las Vegas with Natko as his guardian instead of the Go Black House in North Carolina.

The recommendations, signed by a Nevada district judge, ordered Mencarelli’s money to be kept in a special account with the periodic release of funds for his monthly needs only allowed by court order, and the remaining balance to Terri after her father’s death Black is inherited. The Commissioner also noted that despite the blacks’ allegation that Natko had exchanged part of Mencarelli’s money for their personal benefit, the evidence presented was “insufficient to support a finding that Helen had embezzled the ward’s property”.

The Blacks say the court’s decisions, which included the appointment of a professional guardian, resulted in Mencarelli’s isolation from his family, including monitored phone calls. The next time blacks said they were alone with him was months later when he was hospitalized in Las Vegas in 2015. When the 84-year-old died a few weeks later, the blacks and Natko had been embroiled in legal proceedings for more than two years.

“What we were trying to protect her father was an odyssey that I thought couldn’t happen in our country,” said Rick Black.

Natko was not available for comment, but an attorney who represented her in legal proceedings, Daniel Foley, said Terri Black had “provided no evidence that she was an appropriate guardian or that it would be in Del’s interest to keep his home for.” to leave the past ”. Decade and his monogamous partner of 30 years. “

The Blacks have since formed the non-profit Center for Estate Administration Reform to push for changes to the United States ‘guardianship system, which received national attention amid pop star Britney Spears’ legal battle to remove her father from her conservatory administration. The publicity surrounding Spears’ ordeal and the resulting #FreeBritney movement has given state and federal reform efforts a much-needed uproar, proponents say.

Legislative measures

According to a 2018 National Council report, up to 1.3 million people with disabilities in the United States are under guardianship or conservatory, placing their health care, finances, or other aspect of their life under the judicial control of another person’s disability. Despite the estimated number, very little information on guardianship is tracked by the government, the report said.

As the US population ages, abuse of the elderly in such arrangements is increasingly a concern of policy makers, although the extent of the problem is unknown, a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office said. The Rights of Persons Those under guardianship are rarely restored, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging.

The Spears saga has caught the attention of Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. In the House of Representatives, Charlie Crist, D-Fla., And Nancy Mace, RS.C. proposed what Crist spokeswoman Grace Wright described as “an exit hatch for those stuck in abusive and exploitative situations”.

Their bill, known as the FREE Act, states that databases of all guardianships and conservatories are eligible for grants to assign caseworkers and, if necessary, public guardians for these cases.

A separate bill tabled by Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., Would restrict restorers’ authority over the birth control of their charges – a problem for Spears, who claimed their restorers prevented them from removing their intrauterine device .

In the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., And Bob Casey, D-Pa., Asked Biden’s Justice, Health and Human Resources departments what systems exist to collect information on guardianship data, complaints, and other data. Casey also plans to reintroduce a bill in September that would create an online database of guardianship information, including best practices, training materials, and a compilation of state laws.

Meanwhile, in California, MP Evan Low passed a law requiring professional overseers of other people’s estates to post their fees online and to set penalties for abuse of conservatories. It also aims to eliminate conflicts of interest in which restorers are paid legal fees from the estate of their protégés. The measure was decided unanimously in the assembly and is now pending before the state senate.

Alternative models

Rick Black, who has worked with lawmakers on federal reform, said he would like to see legislation emphasize guardianship as a last resort and allow people with disabilities to make more choices.

Many proponents advocate “assisted decision-making” as an alternative to guardianship, employing a team of counselors such as trusted friends and family to help a disabled person make their own decisions.

Katherine Perez, executive director of the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Marymount University, supports the model in part because of her personal experience in the conservatory system. Her sister Cindy has an intellectual disability and was cared for by her parents and Perez; While they care about the “best interests of their sister”, she denies the fact that their sister has “no legal autonomy”.

“Ultimately, we can’t get out of it bit by bit,” said Perez of the conservatory reforms. “We need to take a deep, hard look at the deeply rooted roots of ableism.”

About a dozen states and Washington, DC have passed laws that establish assisted decision-making as legally enforceable agreements. Casey also overturned it as an alternative to some guardianship, but said he tended to have a limited role for the federal government.

“You can’t have a Washington-fits-all, one-size-fits-all idea here,” he said.

Lawyers are pushing for other changes, including stronger enforcement of existing laws to address cases where lawyers and judges shirk their obligations to those in conservatoires or guardianship. State law often requires guardians to submit an annual report to the courts to ensure the agreement continues to be required and to monitor for abuse. But surveillance “is widely recognized as incredibly lax,” said the National Council on Disability report.

In the Spears case, the lack of transparency in legal proceedings makes it difficult to know whether the law governing their conservatories has been adhered to, said retired judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, who headed similar cases in California but not Spears’.

“We have no idea if the judge stamped the restoration,” Cordell said.

Rick Black called the Nevada system that he and his wife were dealing with “a thug” driven by negligence and corruption.

A hidden problem

Perez said it was frustrating that many people “only now learned of the horror of the conservatory system because of Britney Spears,” who said she was eventually forced to take psychiatric medication. Perez said the pop star’s case could inspire people with mental health problems – including themselves – to join in reform.

“We invest when we know the system could come after us,” she said.

Rick Black, who recently visited a #FreeBritney virtual town hall on Crist and Mace’s Law, said, “The educational process that comes with legislation is helping us train more and more leaders.”

With the widespread attention that the Spears case has brought to the subject, he said he has “wore a smile every day” since the pop star testified.

“We needed more eyes and ears open,” he said, “and Britney did that.”

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