Britney Spears, long-time global singing idol, is finally free of her father’s controlling clutches. And on Nov. 12, we’re told, a Los Angeles judge will decide whether to forever end the conservatorship that has enslaved her for years.
Like millions of Britney’s loudly supportive fans, I am happy about her impending liberation. But I’m also slightly troubled. For conservatorship is something I know a bit about. My son, Drew, got conserved around the same time as Britney. This weekend he turns 34. And I’m worried that, stirred to action by the alleged sins committed against this international superstar, would-be reformers will, as they say, throw the baby out with the bathwater.
First, let’s define our terms. For those as unschooled as I was on such matters, a conservatorship is a legal process whereby, after declaring an individual incapable of caring for him or herself, a court appoints a so-called conservator—often, though not always, a family member—to take charge of the person’s affairs and assume responsibility for his/her well-being. For Britney, that determination came following a mental breakdown in 2007-8; for my son, after a psychiatric diagnosis of grave paranoid schizophrenia with bipolar disorder around the same time.
And that’s where the similarity ends.
Britney continued a lavish career, though her finances and, apparently, personal life remained firmly under her father/conservator’s control. Drew ended up in a locked psychiatric facility where he’s been for the past several years. And while Brittany’s struggle has been to break free of her conservatorship, ours has been to keep Drew’s intact.
My family’s most worrisome time, in fact, is the period leading up to the mandatory annual court hearing to determine whether the legal status protecting him should continue for another year. It always begins with Drew’s official notification of his right to contest the conservatorship using free legal representation provided by the state and ends with a judge’s decision.
Twice the magistrate has seen fit to terminate Drew’s conservatorship, always with disastrous results. The first time, my son ended up spending more than a year homeless and hungry in Hollywood. The second experience was even worse; after assaulting someone in a delusional rage, he spent six months in jail. On both occasions, it was only through the Herculean and time-consuming efforts of his mom and me that Drew finally got re-conserved.
Which is why it’s surprising to hear Britney’s claim that she learned only recently of her right to petition on her own behalf. Especially as the same court conserves both her and my son.
There are, of course, vast differences between the two possibly accounting for that discrepancy. Britney has a $60 million estate controlled, until recently, by her father while the government pays for Drew’s care funneled through a professional court-appointed guardian.
And yet the famous singer’s well-chronicled story has inspired calls for major reform. “Britney is a figurehead for an untold number of people… fighting for their civil rights,” Patrick Hicks, an estate planning attorney, recently told the Los Angeles Times. Author and disability justice advocate S.E. Smith went a step farther, describing Britney’s case as, in the newspaper’s words, “inextricably tied to a culture of ableism used to justify the confinement and abuse of people living with mental illness and disabilities.”
Already California’s legislature is considering proposals to “strengthen” the requirements for conservatorship, potentially making it even harder for people like Drew to get much-needed protection. How far that will go, frankly, is anybody’s guess.
Back in February when all this first hit the news, I mentioned it in a column reacting to two films: a documentary on Britney Spears and a fictional-but-believable account of an unscrupulous conservator swindling her elderly clients. “Ah, but now I’ve seen those movies,” I wrote, “and the self-doubt has risen… Have I been too harsh in my judgement, too blind to recognize the truth? Have I subjected my own flesh-and-blood to something false and crippling?”
Today, as calls for reform threaten to engulf us like lava, I have a far more pressing question: will radically revised guardianship laws allow my son to survive? Only time will tell.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, he is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.