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Opinion

Thanks, Britney: How States Are Fixing Conservatorship Problems

What's being done but why, after my family's horrible conservatorship, I don't think the changes go far enough

By Erica Loberg

Last year, after Next Avenue featured my article about my mother's horrible conservatorship experience, victims nationwide shared with me their own conservatorship abuse struggles. Like me, they fell victim to a flawed system that failed them and perpetuated a toxic outcome. Now, with the Britney Spears conservatorship problems in the news, a widespread group of advocates have been working to reform the nation's conservatorship laws.

A group of "Free Britney" supporters celebrating. Next Avenue, fixing conservatorship laws, corrupt conservators
Credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/PBS

In September, the day before Britney Spears' latest court appearance to fight her father's 13-year-long conservatorship of her, a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee held a hearing on "toxic conservatorships." (Conservators, known as guardians in some states, are appointed to manage the lives and finances of people deemed incapable of doing so.)

In his opening remarks at the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said: "The Britney Spears conservatorship has brought to light real issues with conservatorship law that should shock every American. If the conservatorship process can deprive someone like Ms. Spears…then what chance does the average American have?" 

Movement in States to Fix Conservatorship

That hearing hasn't produced any legislation yet. But as a recent AP article noted, governors and state legislatures in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon are adopting rules to better protect people who have conservators or guardians, as well as their families.

"If the conservatorship process can deprive someone like Ms. Spears…then what chance does the average American have?"

In addition, states such as Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin are working on creating less restrictive alternatives to full guardianship for people with disabilities. They'd require courts to consider "supported decision-making" agreements, letting someone with a disability choose a person to help them but not be able to make decisions for them.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation, called the #FreeBritney bill, to regulate conservatorship wrongdoings. It will require greater transparency in conservatorship fees, prohibit entities that have financial conflicts with the conservator and punish people who abuse their conservatees through $10,000 fines. The new law will also let people under conservatorship select their own attorneys.

California Democratic Assembly member Evan Low, the force behind the bill, admitted that problems in the state's conservatorship laws were more widespread than he'd known. "It's important that we close these loopholes and create accountability and transparency," he said.

New Jersey this year cracked down on who can petition for someone to be placed under a guardian there. New Mexico, which began reforming conservatorship in 2018, has created an independent review process to oversee conservatorships. A new Oregon law ensures that anyone placed under a guardian in the state gets free legal help.

The new regulations are scheduled to go into effect in 2023 or 2024, and more states are expected to pass similar legislation starting in 2022.

Why the Conservatorship Reforms Don't Go Far Enough

These reforms are a good start. However, as I explain below, I can't say they would have saved my mother from the 1 ½ years of financial, emotional, and mental abuse she suffered under conservatorship or that they'd prevent certain key conservatorship issues thousands of others encounter.

Moving forward will present immense challenges, since the layers of conservatorship corruption run deep and have spanned decades.

In the world of conservatorship, financial kickbacks, favors and individuals turning a blind eye make fee transparency almost impossible.

The real question: How do you create accountability and transparency when there is systemic corruption involving questionable judges appointing conservators, doctors writing sealed "evaluations" resulting in conservatorships, court-appointed counsels working with conservators to gain control of people; caregiving companies and nursing home administrators conspiring with conservators and enablers loading their pockets with someone else's money?

In the world of conservatorship, financial kickbacks, favors and individuals turning a blind eye make fee transparency almost impossible.

Of course, not all conservatorships are abusive, and some are extremely helpful for families. But the system is in dire need of fixing. If you draw the parallels of certain conservators working with particular judges and court-appointed counsel, you'll find a pattern that is persistent and historic.

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Sam Ingham, who was removed from Spears as her court-appointed counsel, works with my late mother's previous conservator to this day.

In order for states to regulate who can become a conservator, the system must remove corrupt judges who have the final say in who can become one.

Checks and Balances?

Conservators can build a case against family members to keep them out of the equation and block them from becoming conservators. Having a review process to see how conservatorships operate would be helpful if the people conducting the reviews weren't working in conjunction with corrupt conservators, which could very well happen.

California is supposed to have a conservatorship system with checks and balances. But based on my experience, this is not the case. When I reported my mother's conservator to the California State Fiduciary Bureau (along with a handful of other victims), nothing happened.

It was almost impossible to police the psychological abuse that occurred during my mother's conservatorship.

Allowing a conservatee access to free legal advice could be beneficial, if they're able to plead their case in front of a fair, impartial judge. I can't say that free legal advice would have helped me when I was up against a questionable judicial system, though it would've saved our family some money.

Cracking down on prohibiting guardians from limiting visitation by loved ones would also have been advantageous for our family, but my mom's conservator was extremely sneaky in his tactics. Manipulating her with emotional abuse happened behind closed doors. It was almost impossible to police the psychological abuse that occurred during my mother's conservatorship.

Fooling someone into signing documents to keep them away from their family is criminal, but those signatures stand up in court.

In conservatorship, restraining orders legally keep loved ones away from their family members. If the judiciary system could examine attempts to isolate victims, that would be very useful in identifying predatory conservators. At the very least, it would raise a red flag.

I applaud conservatorship reforms to better train conservators and guardians. But weeding out abusive conservators is challenging and issuing fines will merely scratch the surface. All the money amassed during a corrupt conservatorship should also be returned. And if corrupt conservators knew they could be liable for inflicting financial, emotional and psychological abuse, and potentially face jail time, that would be a crucial step toward robust change. 

Taking on problematic conservators who work with court-appointed lawyers, judges and doctors will be a monumental task.

But if Britney Spears' #FreeBritney movement has shown us anything, it's that advocates are instrumental for change. Victims and their families need advocates who can guide them through the knotty conservatorship process.

If you are dealing with an abusive conservatorship, contact your local government officials. Document everything that unfolds. Establish a list of all people involved in your toxic conservatorship and get ready to hold them accountable once any new laws go into effect.

Erica Loberg is a poet and author. Her new book of poetry, "I'm Not Playing," is based on her experience with her mother's conservatorship. Her book "Inside the Insane" is a memoir about her struggles with Bipolar II coupled with a look at inpatient psych wards in Los Angeles County. She can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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