Written by Laila Gad
Edited by Lok-Yee Lam
Over this past summer, pandemic restrictions weren’t the only things being slowly lifted, signaling a chance for new beginnings. After thirteen years of being solely controlled by her father, Britney Spears' life seems to be finally opening up again, following her public decision to file for her father’s removal from her conservatorship. With her silence finally broken, the mental health community is slowly being exposed to the horrors she faced under the strict conservatorship and the implications it has on the protection of mental health in USA judicial systems.
A “Toxic” Timeline
Before we dive into the ethics of conservatorships, it's really important to revisit Spears’ history with mental health and the events that led up to the court granting her father’s request to have a conservatorship over his daughter.
In 2006, Britney Spears divorced her ex-husband Kevin Federline, with whom she shared two children. Battling over custody of her kids served to be the catalyst for Spears’ breakdowns and eventual exploitation, when it was revealed that two weeks after their divorce Federline had sued for custody of their kids. In 2007, Spears’ had her infamous meltdown, where she was placed under psychiatric holds, shaved her head, got into car accidents, and locked herself and her kids in a bathroom stall. By 2008, LA Superior Court Commissioner Reva Goetz had approved the request of her father, James Spears, to obtain permanent conservatorship, stating that “‘The conservatorship is necessary and appropriate for the complexity of financial and business entities and [Britney] being susceptible to undue influence.’”
Nowadays Spears’ has garnered positive support behind her desire to be freed, but for the last decade, Spears’ had usually been the brunt of the joke, with her actions widely broadcasted and commented on. Cue memes like “Leave Britney Alone” and harsh tabloid headlines like this from the Daily News: Need a brush? Britney Spears shows off head full of ratty bleached blond extensions and bald spot.
Spears’ case is extreme, with her father holding complete control over her social media, framing her to look insane by forcing her into mental hospitals against her will, and forcing her to perform when she’s not feeling well. Additionally, her whole life was broadcasted for the world to see, with the media making a joke out of her serious mental health crises and playing a big role in allowing for the mismanagement of her conservatorship to go unchecked by painting her character as being ‘crazy and unkempt.’
The Ethics of Conservatorships: A Hidden Con Scheme?
According to the Superior Court of California’s website, a conservatorship is defined as “a court proceeding where a judge appoints a responsible person (called a conservator) to care for another adult who cannot care for him/herself or his/her finances (called a conservatee). The person the Court appoints as conservator must be very responsible.”
“...Must Be Very Responsible.”
This is very vague terminology when granting a single person complete power over another, especially when the one being taken cared of isn’t mentally healthy and fit to understand that they are taken advantage of. The criteria of what makes the conservator “very responsible” is brushed over and not thoroughly mentioned on the site.
There are obvious benefits of conservatorships. Initially, these legal relationships were set up for aging individuals, but were extended to those who were experiencing serious mental health issues. It protects these individuals from harm, theft and being taken advantage of. But conservatorship abuse is seemingly becoming a more common issue, with law firms specializing in defending conservatees against it.
Despite living her life mainly in the spotlight, Spears had remained silent for a decade about her conservatorship, leaving many people not knowing what the singer actually wanted. However, in a New York Times Report released in 2021, it was revealed that Spears’ actually was always speaking up against the cruelness and controlling nature of her father to lawyers, repeatedly asking to terminate the agreement since 2015.
Despite Britney’s desire to end her conservatorship and seemingly positive recovery, regaining her rights after being placed under a conservatorship was extremely difficult. Courts don’t view conservatorships in the same fashion that they do when an individual is in a coma or has experienced life-threatening injuries; they don’t recognize the conservator’s need for rehabilitation and support to return to everyday life. Just like waking up from a coma or healing from broken bones require physical therapy, being under a conservatorship renders an individual paralyzed in making their own decisions, ultimately requiring the conservatee to seek both therapy and support to relearn how to live on their own when they overcome their mental health issues. Until they receive that kind of support, conservatees risk having their re-hearing trial outcome ruling against them because they haven’t demonstrated they can take care of themselves.
But it begs to question the humanity of these conservatorships anyways. It is clear through Spears’ experience that these ‘legal’ agreements can be exploited for financial gain against the rights of the conservatee a.k.a. the person it was put in place to protect. Unlike the conservatee, the conservator’s intentions are never examined; as long as they are declared sane and interested in being in charge of the conservatorship, they are given full rights to control the conservatee’s finances and care for them. Why aren’t financial gains examined when the courts decide that someone isn’t fit to care for themselves and their finances and estates? It seems that conservatorships are an easy way for those who want to attain complete control over their loved ones’ assets without their input.
Psychologists seem to want to move away from this though. With psychology playing a major role in supporting the court’s decisions to uphold a conservatorship, research is being conducted to emphasize the importance of also evaluating the guardian to make sure their intentions are best for the conservatee. In “Psychology’s role in guardianship and conservatorship evaluations,” Researchers Dudley and Edmonds underscore the importance of basing guardian decision making on “substituted judgment and the best interest standards,” and moving focus away from supporting decision making on disability and to ability.
From her infamous breakdowns to times of complete radio silence widely documented and commented on in the limelight, Spears’ life serves as commentary on the law’s relationship with disability rights and mental health and the dangerous loopholes in the judicial system that allows those that are mentally unwell to be exploited through conservatorships.
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