Free Britney – the call to end the conservatorship of superstar Britney Spears has expanded across the globe, thanks to a grassroots movement recently bolstered by the New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.” Since the beginning of her conservatorship critics have demanded its termination; advocates were first dismissed as overzealous fans, but their claims were based on facts uncovered in legal filings, raising legitimate concerns about the probate court system. Spears’ case, while singular in fame and fortune, illustrates the complications of conservatorship, particularly in California.
Britney Spears has been under conservatorship since 2008, though, she continues to fight it in court, and she continues to be highly productive. Paradoxically, Spears has been denied the freedom to make phone calls, operate a motor vehicle, and access her finances, all the while recording four studio albums and performing in four world tours, in addition to a four-year Las Vegas residency.
It is often the case, as it appears to be with Spears, that conservatorship is inappropriate or inadequate for the problem it seeks to solve. Nevertheless, California legislators continue to propose expanding the conservatorship system – 2021 legislative session included.
There are different conservatorships in California. One stems from the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), which established California’s system of conservatorship and involuntary treatment for people who are gravely disabled — meaning they can’t meet basic needs. Those conservatorships are initiated by medical or legal professionals. Another, known as probate conservatorship, has less stringent standards and can be initiated by anyone, including parents. Probate conservatorship, which is what Spears is under, is meant to protect people who are unable to provide for their own needs, or to protect them from undue influence.
Spears’ case illustrates how extreme conservatorship can be – even for someone as wealthy and famous as she; it also represents the tip of a large iceberg. If one of the most successful pop stars of the century can be deemed unfit to control her life, what happens to people who don’t have nearly the amount of fame or money?
Britney Spears can work and make money, even though conservatorship is supposed to be for people who can’t. For those in the system without money, they or their families sometimes receive astronomical bills (in the one-million-dollar range) upon release from California’s State Hospital system, which treats individuals with severe disabilities under LPS conservatorship. The bills say the state can go after the former patient’s spouse, children, parents, and estates for payment. Still, in spite of the potentially devastating financial and psychological effects, California continues efforts to expand conservatorship as a solution for mental illness, instead of addressing root causes for what leads people to be conserved.
Last year, a proposed ballot measure misleadingly titled the “California Compassionate Intervention Act” aimed to make it easier for police to detain people on the street who exhibit signs of mental illness, and to eventually conserve them. While the measure did not make it on the ballot, it received substantial attention.
Other measures also sought to expand forced conservatorship, despite the fact that advocates and mental health practitioners say often and repeatedly that the problem should first be addressed by adequate wrap around services — mental and physical health care, housing, and economic resources at earlier points in a person’s life. Instead of making sure those needs are met, California continued with legislation like SB 1045 and its amendment, SB 40, which allows participating municipalities to force people sent to mental health treatment more than eight times in one year to be automatically conserved.
Though SB 1045 and SB 40 were highly controversial and some counties chose not to participate, their passage shows the appetite for conservatorship as an answer to California’s fundamental social failings. That appetite included other failed proposals, like AB 1971 and AB 2156, which would have expanded to definition of “gravely disabled” to make conservatorships easier to obtain.
Also last year, the state auditor found that under California’s conservatorship system, many people who are conserved end up with limited treatment options – conserved with nowhere to heal. Additionally, the auditor found that once people are released from involuntary holds, most do not get follow up treatment. What’s more, there is also confusion over how public dollars are spent for mental health programs.
The case of Britney Spears exposes how well-intentioned policy can create extreme and undesirable outcomes. While the decision to control a person, their finances, and their movement may seem like a straight-forward solution, what the state auditor’s findings show is what advocates and mental health professionals have said all along – longer term solutions for mental illness, homelessness, and other factors leading to conservatorship involve addressing the root cause.
Does everyone have access to long-term housing, treatment for major trauma, access to drug treatment programs, and access to mental and physical health care throughout their life? Or in Britney’s case, refuge from constant prying eyes and abusive, stalking paparazzi and a bloodthirsty public? The answer is no, California has not invested nearly enough to ensure that those very basic needs are met. In light of inaction on those fronts, expanding conservatorship is not a solution, but rather, a surface fix that will never address the poison at the base of the well.
Courtney McKinney is the Director of Communications for Western Center on Law & Poverty. Kevin Wu is a Free Britney activist and runs @freebritneyla. He is featured in “Framing Britney Spears.”