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Spears case spotlights state efforts to rein in conservators
SAN FRANCISCO — Britney Spears' fight to end the conservatorship that controlled vast aspects of her life is putting the spotlight on ongoing efforts throughout the U.S. to reform state laws that advocates say too often harm the very people they were meant to protect.
Already this year, New Jersey cracked down on the circle of people who could petition for someone to be placed under a guardian. New Mexico created an independent review process to oversee how conservatorships are being handled, including the ability to check bank records. And Oregon is ensuring that anyone placed under a guardian gets free legal help.
On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed into law a set of changes prompted by the attention generated by Spears' legal battle to free herself from a 13-year conservatorship run by her father.
The law includes greater oversight of professional fiduciaries, such as those who controlled Spears' life and financial decisions. It will increase scrutiny of financial, physical or mental abuse, which could result in $10,000 fines.
The new law also will allow people placed under a conservatorship to choose their own attorneys, which Spears was finally allowed to do in July.
California lawmakers had passed a series of reforms to the state's conservatorship system in 2006, but they were never implemented by the courts because of budget cuts during the recession in 2008 — the same year Spears was placed in the conservatorship after suffering a mental health crisis.
Her ordeal caught the attention of Congress, which held a Senate Judiciary committee hearing this week examining ways to reshape conservatorships.
The system "is failing people from every walk of life, whether they are a global superstar whose struggles unfortunately play out in public or a family unsure of how to take care of an elderly parent," said state Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat who introduced the bill after watching the recent documentary "Controlling Britney Spears."
Low added: "This bill saw unanimous, bipartisan support throughout the process because it's painfully clear that we can and should do better."
Changes to conservatorship laws in other states also have sought to protect assets and provide less severe alternatives to conservatorships, which also are referred to as guardianships.
In New Jersey, lawmakers introduced legislation that would eliminate a "catch-all" category that lets virtually anyone who claims to have concern for the financial or personal well-being of another adult petition the court to strip their decision-making power.
Studies have found that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illnesses, dementia and Alzheimer's disease are at high risk of being placed under a guardianship.
"Let's say some wealthy woman is worth millions and millions, and their nephew is going around saying she's not all there and she needs to be taken care of. Well, under current law you can do that," said New Jersey Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, a Democrat who was a primary sponsor of the bill. "I want it to be hard for somebody to be a conservator and take money from somebody without adequate protections for that person."
High-profile cases of guardians exploiting vulnerable people in their care led Nevada and New Mexico to overhaul their laws governing conservatorships.
New Mexico reformed its system, starting in 2018, amid rising public complaints and a federal investigation that found 1,000 clients lost more than $10 million in a multi-year embezzlement scheme perpetrated by the Albuquerque-based company Ayudando Guardians. In July, a married couple that helped operate the company were sentenced to a combined 62 years in prison on fraud, theft and money laundering convictions. A judge said their conduct left former clients destitute and homeless.
Initial legislation provided greater access to secretive guardianship records and court proceedings. It also prohibited guardians from placing limits on visitation with the elderly and infirm after families complained they weren't allowed to visit or communicate with their loved ones. The state has added bonding requirements and training for conservators, new rights for the incapacitated and a grievance process to challenge court decisions.
New Mexico state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino said he's glad Spears' legal battle thrust the conservatorship process into the spotlight. The Democrat cosponsored successful legislation that pays for judicial staff to review conservator and guardianship accounts.
"It really goes to the heart of the matter," Ortiz y Pino said. "You're taking away basic civil rights from a person, and it's not that apparent to the casual observer if a person is capable of managing their own affairs any longer. That's why you have someone evaluate the person's mental acuity. You have someone check whether there are less restrictive options. You try to build in some protections."
In March, New Mexico lawmakers gave the state auditor's office new authority to review conservator and guardianship annual reports, conduct audits and subpoena bank records.
"That's not necessarily public transparency, but transparency in the sense of third eyes are looking at what the conservator is doing, besides the judge," said Democratic state Rep. Marian Matthews, a co-sponsor of the legislation.
After a guardian was charged in 2017 with siphoning more than half a million dollars from hundreds of people she had been appointed by courts to protect, Nevada lawmakers enshrined a right to legal counsel for adults under guardianship, created a system to allow people to pre-nominate guardians in case they became incapacitated and formed a compliance office to crack down on abuse.
Karen Kelly, who heads the Clark County Public Guardian's office, said the number of private guardianships have plummeted since the reforms went into effect and more people challenged proposed arrangements.
In June, Oregon's Democratic governor signed a bill that provides legal counsel — paid by the state — for people potentially being placed into guardianship.
"Protected persons currently don't have a right to representation, which obviously sets up people without means for potential abuse," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Democrat who was one of the measure's sponsors.
Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin area among a growing number of states seeking to provide a less restrictive alternative to full guardianship, a step that is intended to allow people to direct their own lives.
The laws, backed by advocates for people with disabilities, require the courts to consider "supported decision-making" agreements. They allow a person with a disability to choose someone who can help with critical tasks such as reviewing a lease, but cannot make a decision for them.
"We're not calling for abolishing conservatorships, but changing the paradigm in which we see people with disabilities and see their ability to make choices in their own lives," said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, a Southern California advocacy group.
Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said that approach applies "the lightest possible touch" to the process of formal oversight.
Borel said it's extremely hard for someone to be removed from a guardianship. In one memorable case, he recalled a man with an intellectual disability who had the support of his caretakers in a state institution to move into a community housing facility.
But the move was initially denied because the man remained under guardianship of his grandmother — even though she had died years before.
"It's still harder to get your rights restored than to never go under unnecessary guardianship," he said.
Associated Press writers Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Kathleen Foody in Chicago; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, N.M.; Samuel Metz in Carson City, Nevada, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon contributed reporting.