Op-ed: Conservatorship Abuse- a 20th Century Phenomenon

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Ginger Franklin, a 50 year old woman fell down the stairs of her Nashville home in 2008 and was left with brain damage so severe, the doctors were not sure if she would survive. Given her physical and mental state, the court felt comfortable appointing someone to make financial and personal decisions for Franklin (also known as a conservatorship). Contrary to the doctors’ expectation however, months later a miracle happened–Franklin recovered. When she returned to her hometown, she found her home (and all her possessions) gone. After two years of legal battles and exorbitant legal fees, Franklin was finally able to terminate the conservatorship and regain her freedom. While Franklin’s situation was unfortunate it is actually not as uncommon as you may think.

Conservatorships, which are designed for the health and safety of the person under contract are sometimes not actually in the best interest of the individual at all. Under these circumstances, a person has almost no personal freedoms. A person in a conservatorship needs permission to spend their own money, to leave their home, to work, and more. Conservatorships are most often meant for those with degenerative diseases such as alzheimers and dementia. Although average people make up the majority of conservatorship abuse cases, some of the most infamous cases of this have happened to celebrities. The most well-known conservatorship involving a celebrity is that of Britney Spears, which was in place over the last 13 years. Spears was suffering from postpartum depression and mental health issues and instead of offering her help and guidance, the people closest to her (especially her father Jamie Spears,) exploited her further. They ultimately created the circumstances which led to Spears public “meltdown” and subsequently the conservatorship that ensued.

In the late 1990’s to early 2000’s Britney Spears was widely recognized as the queen of pop music. In 1999 her back to back singles “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops!…I Did It Again” (as well as several others) quickly rose to number one on the Billboard top 100 chart and went platinum multiple times. At the height of her early success, she began a three-year long relationship with Justin Timberlake. When they ultimately broke up and Timberlake accused Spears of being unfaithful, the media which had once been so kind to Spears quickly turned against her. Everyone, from talk show hosts, to other celebrities, to tabloid headlines were slut shaming Spears and accusing her of breaking Timberlake’s heart. This was only the beginning of the media’s attack on Spears. A few years later in 2005 after enduring being stalked by paparazzi and shamed in the media, Spears had her second child. She began to suffer from postpartum depression and started to see a therapist for weekly counseling. As her mental health continued to deteriorate, she was caught using various substances which led to a custody battle resulting in the loss of her two children. Shortly after this, Spears’s father Jamie petitioned the courts to wage a financial and personal (over her health and life choices) conservatorship over his daughter. Out of fear that if she did not do this, she would lose her kids forever, Spears reluctantly agreed.

Years later and under the pressures of her conservatorship Spears was forced by her team to be a judge on X Factor, release several albums, develop perfume/other merchandise, perform several world tours, and hold a Las Vegas residency. Spears did all this while being allotted a few thousand dollars as an “allowance” each week, having to ask permission to leave her home and otherwise having almost all her personal freedoms taken away from her. Spears was also forced against her will to get an IUD as well as to go on a cocktail of medications that made her feel foggy and sick. Throughout the years her relationship with her kids has also been impacted by the conservatorship, she only had visitation rights with them. Although some may look at Spears and her success and think she’d benefitted from this arrangement, I would then say that although her popularity has not dwindled, her quality of life has. Through the past 13 years before the conservatorship’s recent termination, Spears had been forcefully medicated, had no access to the money she’s earned, no say over the direction of her music/career and limited access to her kids and partner. To those that may argue that the conservatorship was necessary, I would then ask, how she had been trusted to learn choreography, record music, perform all around the world and be on TV shows, if supposably she was too incompetant to make basic decisions about her health or finances?

While Spears’ situation is shocking and not as common as what Ginger Franklin faced, conservatorship abuse happens all too often to celebrities and “normal” people alike. One of the largest problems with conservatorships and the reason cases like this happen is because of how nearly impossible it is to escape these legal bindings. A natural solution would be to make conservatorships easier to leave–with regular assessments to determine need. Conservatorships should be solely for the benefit of the person in them. When they fail to serve that individual they need to be terminated. No one deserves to have their personal freedoms taken from them if they don’t need this to happen for the sake of their own health.

Madeline Leavy-Rosen

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