- More than a million adults in the US are in court-appointed guardianships, with 85% over age 65.
- African American elders are most likely to experience psychological or financial exploitation.
- Advocates caution that guardianships are easily attained, but difficult to have removed.
The #FreeBritneySpears movement fueled a new momentum in reforming the country’s laws around guardianship and conservatorship.
After a lengthy court battle that ignited a media firestorm, Jamie Spears confirmed this week that he would step down as conservator over his daughter and pop star, Britney Spears, following revealing testimony of her struggles that sparked outrage.
“[Her] case has indicated how extraordinary the control that a guardian can exercise over a person and also how problematic that can be,” Prianka Nair, assistant professor of clinical law at the Brooklyn Law School, told Insider.
The co-director of the disability and civil rights clinic added that Americans are “only just waking up to how coercive it is – that somebody can exert control over your health care decisions, over your financial decisions.”
“That has implications for your quality of life,” she added.
While the singer’s plight brought attention to the downfalls of conservatorships and guardianships, the reality becomes grimmer for marginalized groups like communities of color – particularly people with disabilities and the elderly.
Factoring cultural dynamics around how families should care for their loved ones, including race, immigration status, language barriers, and other attitudes or taboos – the conversation around legal or family guardianship can become more complicated.
“If you apply an intersectional lens to this, stripping someone of legal capacity is in the state subordination playbook,” Jasmine E. Harris, a law professor at the UC Davis School of Law, told PBS Newshour.
“We’ve seen this happen with other marginalized communities, but in particular women.”
Legal guardianships can be easily attained and impossible to fight
Adult guardianships occur when a person suffers from a mental disability, cognitive condition, or age-related decline in everyday activities that can impair their ability to make important life decisions.
There are currently more than a million adults in court-appointed guardianships around the country, and at least 85% of those cases are adults over the age of 65, according to AARP.
In most cases, the court appoints a family member to oversee the important decisions, from their finances to their medical needs. People with disabilities, including those who suffer from mental and cognitive conditions, often face additional racial barriers that leave them vulnerable to exploitation.
Jamie Spears had been accused of exploiting and controlling his daughter for financial gain, even denying her the right to have more children by barring the singer from removing an IUD.
Meanwhile, Britney Spears argued there was no longer a need for a conservator years after a mental health crisis that become the fodder for public ridicule. Her fight mirrored many who are also fighting to gain back control over their lives.
Unlike the former pop star, however, whose celebrity amplified issues of conservator and guardian abuse, many victims and their loved ones can’t afford proper counsel needed to battle cases. For women of color with disabilities, the restriction of reproductive rights dates back to the racist history of eugenics in the country’s healthcare system.
Sam Crane, legal director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told USA Today that when it comes to women of color, “there is a very long history in the United States of forced sterilization of people – especially women of color – with disabilities or perceived disabilities.”
For both and vulnerable elders, the system is also filled with racial bias that can leave the most vulnerable taken exploited or destitute. Preventing these legal woes can come at the expense of stripping these populations of any agency over their lives or finances.
It is a scam. Someone can enter a guardianship because a stranger filed or a lawyer might recommend that a family file.Marian Kornicki
According to the National Health Law Program, 1 in 4 Black people is impacted by a disability – the second-highest for any ethnic group after American Indians.
With only 9% of African Americans with disabilities receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher, and nearly 40% living below the poverty line, those socioeconomic conditions can expose them to exploitation by the court system, or their own families.
Nair told Insider “once a guardianship is imposed, people from these communities face significant barriers to accessing services that facilitate the tailoring or removal.”
“People with disabilities can find it very difficult to establish a circle of support, and that’s an important factor that courts think about while imposing or removing a guardianship,” she said, adding that a lack of financial resources or “access to affordable legal representation,” makes it harder to find alternatives.
Due to systemic racial barriers and bias within the medical field, elderly African Americans can be left powerless to manipulative tactics that make them easy targets as well.
A report by the National Center of Elderly Abuse found that African Americans were more likely to experience psychological mistreatment and financial exploitation than their non-Black counterparts.
The fear can be even more severe with instances of abuse at assisted-living facilities or by at-home attendants, placing a heavy burden on Black caregivers who may be providing for other family members already.
While nearly 70% of Black male caregivers reported that they had employment outside of caring for their loved ones, at least half of those respondents stated that their caregiving duties impacted their jobs, according to a survey by advocacy group Next Avenue.
Many were forced to give up their careers completely to care for their loved ones full-time. It can be one of the reasons why families consider entering a legal guardianship.
But some elder advocates told Insider it may be best to avoid them entirely as more victims come forward with their own stories of guardian abuse.
Advocates caution loved ones to avoid guardianships altogether
Marian Kornicki, an advocate for elderly Americans and critic against guardianship proceedings, cautioned caregivers against seeking the option through the court, arguing they are designed to take advantage of vulnerable populations who are often unable to defend themselves.
“People are lured into believing that they need to, but there’s absolutely no reason,” she told Insider.
Kornicki noted media coverage surrounding Spears’ unique case shows that the system as a whole is flawed. If it can’t guarantee protection for public figures with an abundance of financial resources like Spears, she said the marginalized are rendered even more silenced.
African Americans were more likely to experience psychological mistreatment and financial exploitation than their non-Black counterparts. National Center of Elderly Abuse
“It is a scam,” she argued. “Someone can enter a guardianship because a stranger filed or a lawyer might recommend that a family file. Then they’re not appointed, so now the court appoints a third party.”
She added that limited data around the prevalence of conservator and guardian abuse makes it even harder for advocates to paint a picture of how widespread the problem.
Jamie Spears has now agreed to work with his daughter’s legal teams to facilitate a transition plan for a new conservator over her estate. The popstar, however, is still challenging the conservatorship overall.
While Britney Spears may soon attain the independence she seeks, there are many Americans who remain silenced victims, fighting against a system stripping their autonomy.
Changing laws can only do so much, but advocates say true progress in the fight against conservator abuse can come from Spears’ case creating a platform for victims, especially those of color, to speak up and be supported.