Britney Spears case paves the way for fixing the conservatorship system—but corruption runs deep

NextAvenue.org has permission to reproduce this article.
After Next Avenue published my article about my mother's terrible conservatorship experience, victims across the country shared their own conservatorship abuse stories with me last year. They were like me and fell prey to a flawed system which failed them, perpetuating a toxic outcome. A large group of advocates has been trying to reform the nation's conservatorship laws, now that Britney Spears' conservatorship issues are in the news.

Britney Spears' 13-year-long conservatorship was set to end in September. A Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee held an inquiry on toxic conservatorships.

Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, stated that the Britney Spears conservatorship brought out real problems with conservatorship law and should shock all Americans. What chance does the average American have if the conservatorship process can take Ms. Spears away?

Read more: Britney Spears' 13-years under conservatorship has cost her how much?

In states that fix conservatorship

The hearing has not yet produced any legislation. However, a recent AP article stated that governors and state legislatures in California New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Oregon have adopted rules to better protect conservators and guardians as well as their families.

States like Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas, and Texas are also working to create less restrictive alternatives for full guardianship of people with disabilities. They would require courts to review supported decision-making arrangements, which allow someone with a disability to choose a person to assist them, but not to make their decisions.

California's Democratic Governor. Gavin Newsom signed #FreeBritney legislation to regulate conservatorship misdeeds. It will make conservatorship fees more transparent, ban entities with financial conflicts with conservators, and penalize people who abuse their conservators with $10,000 fines. People under conservatorship will be able to choose their own lawyers through the new law.

Evan Low, a member of the California Democratic Assembly, was the force behind this bill. He admitted that the problems with the state conservatorship laws were much more widespread than he had known. He stated that it was important to close these loopholes, and bring accountability and transparency.

New Jersey has made it easier for people to petition to be placed under guardianship. New Mexico has established an independent review process to supervise conservatorships. The state, which introduced conservatorship reform in 2018, also created conservatorship oversight boards. Oregon's new law guarantees that all persons placed under guardianship in the state receive free legal assistance.

The new regulations will be in effect in 2023 and 2024. Additional states are expected adopt similar legislation beginning in 2022.

Also, read: A secret operation to launder bitcoin money for drug dealers is revealed by the owner of a non-profit science laboratory for children

Why conservatorship reforms don't go far enough

These reforms are a great start. As I will explain, these reforms are not enough to save my mother from 1 year of financial, emotional and mental abuse under conservatorship. They also won't prevent key conservatorship issues that thousands of other people face.

It will be difficult to move forward, as the layers of corruption in conservatorships run deep and span decades.

The real question is: How can you make accountability and transparency in a system of corruption? Court-appointed counsels work with conservators to gain control over people. Caregiving companies and nursing home administrators conspire with conservators and enablers.

Financial kickbacks, favors, and people turning a blindeye make it almost impossible to disclose fees in conservatorship.

Not all conservatorships are harmful, and some can be very beneficial for families. The system needs to be fixed. You will see a pattern that is both persistent and historical if you look at the work of conservators with certain judges and court-appointed counsel.

Sam Ingham was removed from Spears by her court-appointed counsel. She works with my mother's conservator until this day.

To allow states to regulate who can be a conservator, they must get rid of corrupt judges who decide who can.

What about checks and balances?

Conservators may use their family members as a way to make a case against them and prevent them from becoming conservators. It would be beneficial to have a review process to examine how conservatorships work if those reviewing it weren't being conducted in association with corrupt conservators.

California is supposed have a conservatorship system that includes checks and balances. My experience shows that this is not true. Nothing happened when I reported my mother's conservator to the California State Fiduciary Bureau, along with several other victims.

Don't forget: My mother-in law has advanced dementia. My sister-in law charged her $70K for rent. Is this ethical?

If a conservatee is able to present their case before a fair and impartial judge, giving them access to legal advice may be beneficial. Although it wouldn't have saved us any money, I can't say that I would have received free legal advice if I had been up against a questionable judiciary system.

Our family would have also been better off if guardians were allowed to limit visitation by loved one. However, my mom's conservator was very sneaky in his methods. Behind closed doors, my mom was subject to emotional abuse. My mother's conservatorship was so difficult that it was nearly impossible to monitor the psychological abuse she suffered.

It is illegal to trick someone into signing documents that will keep them from their families. However, those signatures are admissible in court.

Conservatorship is a legal process that legally keeps loved ones from their families by issuing restraining orders. It would be extremely useful for identifying predatory conservators if the judiciary could look into attempts to isolate victims. It would at the most raise a red flag.

I support conservatorship reforms that better train guardians and conservators. It is difficult to eradicate abusive conservators and issuing fines will not solve the problem. It is important to return all the money accumulated during corrupt conservatorships. It would be a significant step towards resolving corruption if corrupt conservators were aware that they could face imprisonment for financial, psychological, and emotional abuse.

It will be difficult to take on conservators with problematic relationships with judges, lawyers and doctors.

Britney Spears' #FreeBritney movement is a reminder that advocates can be instrumental in bringing about change. Advocates are needed to help victims and their families navigate the complicated conservatorship process.

Contact your local government officials if you have to deal with abusive conservatorship. Keep track of everything that happens. Make a list of everyone involved in toxic conservatorship. Once new laws are in effect, you will be able to hold them responsible.

Erica Loberg, a poet and an author. Im Not Playing is her new poetry book. It's based on her experiences with her mother's conservatorship. Inside the Insane, her memoir about bipolar II and a look at Los Angeles County's inpatient psychiatric wards, is what she calls Inside the Insane. She can be reached at ericaloberg@gmail.com.

This article was reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, Inc. 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.

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