S1: Sarah Luterman got a confession to make. She was never really a fan of Britney Spears music.
S2: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, actually. Why? Well, because, like, when I was in high school, I was kind of like one of those, not like other girls, girls. And I had blue hair and got caught up in this idea that, like, Britney Spears is like shallow. And, you know, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how ridiculous that was and how kind of misogynist it was.
S1: Now, Sarah’s kind of a Britney Spears expert, not an expert in the US Weekly gossip column Sense, but an expert on Britney’s legal situation. Sarah covers disability rights. She’s watched over the last few years as Britney Spears fans have organized, advocated, pressured California’s courts to FreeBritney from a conservatorship that controls her finances and a whole lot of her life. No one really knew a whole lot about this legal arrangement until last week. That’s when Britney Spears herself testified in open court about it. The audio leaked almost immediately.
S3: I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive. And now we can sit here all day and say, oh, conservatorships are here to help people, but ma’am, there’s a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well. I don’t feel like I can live a full life.
S1: Britney Spears spoke for more than 20 minutes, it felt like a breathless run on sentence. She said she had no control over her finances, could not make her own reproductive choices, couldn’t choose her own mental health care. And she begged the judge for help.
S3: I wish I could stay with you on the phone forever, because when I get off the phone with you, all of a sudden all of our hear, I hear all these no’s. No, no, no. And then all of a sudden I get I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone. And I’m tired of feeling alone.
S1: But none of this surprised Sarah.
S2: I knew that, like, Britney Spears was experiencing like a really. Shocking loss of autonomy.
S1: How did you know?
S2: Well, so there are some people in the disability community who called conservatorship or guardianship, as it’s called, in some other states. Civil death.
S1: Civil death.
S2: Yeah, I mean, you essentially legally stop being a person. All of the civil rights that you have are basically afforded to your guardian.
S1: Today on the show, what Britney Spears case means not just for her, but for the hundreds of thousands of people just like her, people who don’t have a social media campaign that’s focused on setting them free on Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. Sarah Luterman has been researching guardianships like the one Britney Spears is under for a long time. She’s full of these facts that crystallize why these arrangements can be problematic. One by one, she says, guardianships can pluck away a person’s civil rights.
S2: In some states, people under guardianship can’t vote. I think in California, Britney Spears could vote with permission.
S1: This is all very personal for Sarah, too. She’s autistic and partially blind. So things that might have stood out about Britney Spears testimony to people without disabilities, they sort of made Sarah shrug. Like at one point Britney Spears talked about being forced to go to therapy with providers she didn’t like and didn’t trust, sent to offices where she suspected paparazzi might be lurking. And I heard that. And I thought, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of therapy? Mental health care is all about trust. Sarah heard that and she thought it was a perfect example of how there are two systems of psychiatric care in America, one for, quote unquote, regular folks and one for people with serious mental health issues.
S2: That also didn’t surprise me, like the idea of being afraid of talking to your therapist about certain things, about being worried about being noncompliant. If those are those are very real fears that I’ve experienced and that some of my friends have experienced. I haven’t been a guardianship, thank God. But like when people think you’re crazy enough and you say. Is believable, like everything can be undermined,
S1: you’re just assumed to be an unreliable narrator.
S2: Yeah, I thought what she was describing was this is something I’ve heard before from other people who have been in similar situations. It’s something I’ve experienced.
S1: Yeah. The main thing Britney Spears kept coming back to again and again in her testimony was the fact that she wants to end her conservatorship without being evaluated. Could you explain the significance of that?
S2: Well, it’s actually very difficult to end the conservatorship or guardianship under any circumstances. There’s a case of a young man named Ryan King if he’s not a young man anymore, it’s been years parenting finished high school and he has an intellectual disability. And his parents were told, like a lot of parents are, look, he has an intellectual disability. You need to put him under guardianship. So they did because that’s what they were told they had to do. So they put them under the guardianship. And so his parents are like they have that that power over him as an adult. And he he was actually like a very functional, independent adult, unexpectedly. So he he had a job at a supermarket for like ten years. He was paying his rent. So his parents, like, looked at the situation and they talked to him about it. And they were like, you know, we don’t really think we need this guardianship, which is really fine. So they go to the court and ask the court to remove the guardianship. And in this case, like everybody agrees with the parents agree who are the guardians? Ryan agrees. And the court said no. Why? Because once someone is determined to be under guardianship, like it’s like a civil death like it, it’s very unusual for a guardianship to be removed or reversed. Like it, because the idea is that, like, it gets imposed when someone is fundamentally incapable and then being able to prove you’re capable, when you’ve been determined to be fundamentally incapable, it’s like a catch 22. Like you don’t you don’t have the opportunities to really prove your competence.
S1: So what Britney Spears is asking for here is doubly hard because she’s asking to leave the guardianship, which seems very difficult to do at all, and then she’s also asking to leave the guardianship without some kind of stamp of approval that she’s OK.
S2: It’s more that like the evaluation is kind of pointless,
S1: like the evaluation would never find her to be fed. Yes. Really, there’s no chance
S2: it would be unusual. I mean, I guess there’s a lot of unusual things about Britney Spears and the case because of who she is and how much money is involved. But look, I understand why she doesn’t want the evaluation, and I don’t think that the evaluation should be necessary. And I’m also skeptical that the evaluation would treat her fairly based on every other guardianship case involving this kind of like re-evaluation of ability. But I’ve ever seen
S1: what happened with that case you were talking about with the man whose family was wanted him to be free of guardianship. Did he ever get out from under it?
S2: Yeah, it took them 10 years. And lawyers.
S1: Part of what I think it makes conservatorship or guardianship so difficult to talk about is that the laws vary state by state, but in California, we’re Britney Spears is the system is supposed to favor limited conservatorships. Right. Like, how did it even get to this point where it took years and years and years for Britney Spears to even be speaking in front of the court? And by the time she is, she’s clearly desperate.
S2: I mean, this this the thing like I think just in general, like when we talk about the least restrictive option, like it varies on the state, but like for the most part, conservatorship or guardianship is not designed that way. Like it’s like a light switch is all or nothing,
S1: so the least restrictive guardianship is still very restrictive.
S2: Yes, there are some more limited type options, like you can have a fiscal sponsor who just helps you manage your money. You could have power of attorney. Where someone else is managing your legal affairs, but you have still have the right to say no and to replace them like there are less restrictive options, it’s just like guardianship is just like a very extreme measure.
S1: In the writing about Britney Spears and her testimony, a lot of people talk about how outstanding her cases and a lot of writers, you know, they talk about how usually these arrangements are made for people who are old and infirm. And I wonder if you take issue with that a little bit, if you think when people write about these arrangements that way, they’re missing the point.
S2: I mean, yeah, I do think that when people write about the arrangements that where they’re missing the point, I mean, it’s. It’s complicated, like everything else is, like there are legitimately some people who struggle to make. Decisions about things that they need to to live. So like, for example, right now, Michelle Nichols, the the the actress who played, who are unlike the original Star Trek, her family recently put her under under a conservatorship. But the reason for that was because there was a so-called friend who was sort of like financially exploiting her and because she’s older and she she was she being exploited. And so they they did that because they wanted to protect her. And that’s like that’s a very laudable that’s a laudable goal, you know, like I think that is completely reasonable for families to want to protect people they care about. The problem is that the guardianship system itself is just so. Unregulated, we don’t actually even know how many people are under guardianship in the United States.
S1: I mean, I read it was over a million, which was more than I was expecting.
S2: Well, so that’s just an estimate from the AARP. Like, we don’t actually know because there’s no federal reporting standards. There are the state records are really shoddy. There it’s there’s no rules about how things are recorded or about like weather records or even saved. It is so we don’t know how many people are under guardianship in the United States. We don’t really know like how many guardianship. And I’m like, we have anecdotal evidence and stories, but like we don’t have statistics if those numbers just don’t exist because we haven’t been keeping track.
S1: The other challenging thing about talking about guardianship to me seems to be that each arrangement is a little bit unique, has its own reasons for existing. It has its own person in charge, like with Britney Spears. It’s her family who’s in charge, especially her dad. But then there are cases where the state gets involved and the state takes over even when the family doesn’t want them to. Like there was this case, a man, a guy named William Deane, who is a savant and had a mental mental health crisis after his mother passed away and his family actually wanted to be conservators for him. They said we want to help him. But the state stepped in and said, now we’re going to take care of this. And the results seem to be disastrous.
S2: And that case haunts me like this was one of the most it’s a very extreme case. And but everything once again, everything that happened was completely legal. Yeah. He was a survivor who really loved musical instruments. He had like a collection of historical organs. And the state. Yeah. And the state sold all of them and they sold the properties that his mother had owned for under for less than market value considerably.
S1: And he had waterfront property in Maine.
S2: Yeah. Yeah. Like it. And also they euthanized his cat caterpiller.
S1: And did the state ever explain why
S2: I mean, they still assert that what they did was right and necessary? William and his family actually brought a suit to try to get the state to give something back to them after having essentially destroyed his life. And it was determined that everything that happened was people. And Dean died before any sort of any any kind of justice could have even been made about.
S1: You make this point that I think is really important in your writing when you talk about these cases of guardianship and conservatorship. You talk about how nondisabled adults make harmful decisions all the time and they usually don’t risk losing their civil rights for it, but a disabled adult is in a different situation where if they make a bad decision. Someone, a family member of the state, can step in and all of the sudden lay claim to so many aspects of their life, and I thought that was just a really useful framing because. You think about conservatorship and a lot of people think about it as a form of protection, it can be a form of protection to keep someone safe. And it’s it’s meant to be a good thing. But by framing it in a different way from the disabled persons perspective, you really see how harmful it can be.
S2: It’s hard to know because once again, there is no data, but I do think that most especially family conservators and guardians are probably very well-intentioned and care about their relatives, like that’s I don’t contest that at all. The problem is that, like, if you have a system that relies on the unchecked, unchecked, unsupervised benevolence to someone who like more or less has absolute power over another person, like, that’s dangerous. I mean, look, the state was able to do all of those things to William Dean because it was legal. And again, it’s looking like. In disability service provision, there’s this concept that’s called the right to eat too many doughnuts and then take a nap.
S1: I’m in favor of that, right?
S2: Yeah, so like I mean, like that’s the thing, like if a non disabled person decides I’m going to I’m going to skip work and I’m going to like, I don’t know. Have a couple of drinks and eat a whole bunch of doughnuts and then take a nap, and I’m not going to do the things I’m technically supposed to do today because I feel like that person isn’t going to have like any of their fundamental rights taken away. Like that’s a thing that normal people are allowed to do. But if you have a disability and you do those things that’s seen as further evidence of your incapacity and inability to responsibly manage your own life.
S1: After the break, why some families choose a conservatorship even when they might not want to. Sarah Luterman says sometimes conservatorships are necessary, but that’s often because states don’t give families other options, it’s either enter a guardianship or wonder if the state is going to create one of its own.
S2: I do think that, like, we’re always going to need some kind of like. Proxy decision making. Look, there are genuinely some people who. Can’t communicate. What their preferences are like in ways that would be meaningful to their people, for example, like I have a friend whose son is under is under guardianship because they don’t really have other options. He’s speaking and he has an intellectual disability and he has preferences like he likes his food he likes or maybe he wants to go swimming one day and not another day. But it wouldn’t be possible to like consulting about his tax situation, that kind of thing. This is actually something I’ve sort of been struggling to write about, is there’s sort of this situation where like. When people have those kinds of disabilities, the state sort of creates a situation where, like their parents don’t have another choice.
S2: Because the less the less restrictive option in that case would be power of attorney, which gets used with older folks where like an elderly person can designate someone else as the person who makes the legal decisions. But they still retain all of their civil rights. And you can’t do that with someone with a. Significant disability like that, because they are seen as fundamentally incompetent and incapable of giving consent,
S1: so they couldn’t even agree to enter into the relationship in the first place,
S2: according to the state. Yeah, some families are just forced to go for the more restrictive environment because otherwise they’re just like kind of hoping. That the state won’t step in.
S1: Oh, so it’s a way for the parents to prevent the state from. The state from assuming control, yes, do your friends fear that the state might? Institutionalised or child or otherwise, try to control them.
S2: I mean, that was why they got guardianship, essentially, and I have other friends who haven’t gotten guardianship for their kids with those kinds of disabilities. And they’re basically just hoping that doesn’t happen and trying to figure out what a better option might be. It’s really it’s not a great situation, like when you when you ask whether some people need to be under guardianship, like I do think that some people need help with need significant assistance making decisions, need someone in their life who can make decisions that they might not be able to understand. But I I don’t know, I don’t think that that has to be guardianship. Look, I think there has to be a more just less restrictive way to stretch all this stuff.
S1: A lot of disability rights advocates cite this case, Buck versus Bell, that went to the Supreme Court. Do you think it’s worth talking about that case and how it kind of frames this bigger issue you’re talking about, about not just conservatorships, but how the legal community has seen? People who are disabled.
S2: Yeah, so Buckyball was a case. That happened on the early 20th century, and it’s it’s like the eugenics case, it’s the basis for whether the government can legally forcibly sterilize people in this country. The question was there was this woman named Carrie Buck and her mother had been institutionalized. She had a child out of wedlock. And this was seen as her being fundamentally unfit and so that she was institutionalized and then the institution wanted to sterilize her because they felt that she was this genic and wouldn’t produce offspring that would degrade the human race, specifically the white race going to really like if we’re going to be honest about sort of the ideological underpinnings of this. She was white. Yes. Basically, eugenics at the time was very popular, and there’s this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the majority decision. He said, Three generations of idiots is enough. Ouch. Yeah.
S1: And Buck vs. Bell was never overturned, was it?
S2: No. No, it was never overturned.
S1: So that still stands. Yes. I wonder if there’s an alternative framework for disabled Americans, people who might need some assistance but don’t want to surrender their civil rights. What does that look like?
S2: Yeah, so there’s this sort of newer legal construct called supportive decision making that’s increasingly popular in the intellectual and developmental disability community. Seniors are using it now, too, which is really interesting. And basically, instead of losing all of their civil rights, a person retains their civil rights and then has like advisers either like informal or formal, depending on the state and how the pilot program is structured. And those people help someone make big decisions, like if someone wants to move to a new apartment, they’ll talk about like, OK, here’s how much it costs and help walk, walk the person through, like all of the things that they should understand about it. And the person can defer to their supporters if they think, like, I don’t I don’t know how to do that. I need help with that
S1: or their supporters like trained or anything, or is it just is it just friends or family?
S2: It can be both. Some say some more formal supporters like money managers or people that are through nonprofits and in some cases have like just family members, people, siblings, parents, friends, even.
S1: What I keep coming back to with Britney Spears is that it’s clear that she has very few people around her that she trusts, like she talks in her testimony about her whole family essentially being people that she even potentially wants to sue. I just look at that and I think I don’t know a good way out of this situation for her, like she’s been surrounded by people she doesn’t trust for so long. She’s asking for that entire system to fall away. And then the question becomes what comes in its place? Do you think about that?
S2: I mean, I just feel like maybe she doesn’t need a system like why do we get to decide what’s good for Britney Spears? Why does Britney Spears his family get to decide what’s good for Britney Spears if she does stop having, like, this framework and if she has another mental health crisis? Like, why was she not allowed to do that? Like, why is she not allowed to struggle to have difficulties, to make bad decisions if those are all things normal people do all the time?
S1: Sarah, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: Thank you so much for having me.
S1: Sarah Luterman is a freelance journalist covering disability policy, politics and culture, and that’s her show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Alan Schwartz, Danielle Hewitt, Carmel Delshad and David Land. We get advice and guidance from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery and a Mary Harris. You can go see how my dog is coping with heat on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk. Meanwhile, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.