The #FreeBritney effect: Conservatorships under scrutiny

People hold signs at a rally.
Supporters of the #FreeBritney movement rally in support of Britney Spears following a conservatorship court hearing in Los Angeles in March.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP via Getty Images file

The #FreeBritney movement has highlighted the immense power that court-ordered guardians wield over their wards and raised alarms about the potential for abuse. 

The concern is particularly acute given the aging of the American population. America’s elders may be especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation due to social isolation or mental impairment, which leaves some unable to manage their daily affairs.

And now, the pressure for change is building.

The world of guardianship and conservatorship is “riddled with ethical questions and issues to balance,” Pamela Teaster, a professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology, told guest host Chris Farrell.

Teaster sees room for improvement and reform in the guardianship system: “There are protections in place, and when they work, they work well. When they don’t, that’s where the problem is.”

Where should the process of reform start? “The first key is information,” Teaster said, highlighting a lack of monitoring, tracking and data on guardianships.

Marit Peterson, associate director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, agreed: “We really have a difficult time crafting adequate or meaningful interventions when we don’t have information about how these harms transpired.”

Peterson sees potential in legislation like the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act (or Free Britney Act) introduced to Congress in July.

“This kind of change that really centers an individual and really focuses on how we might support an individual's ability to make decisions that are available to them — that kind of change is very welcome,” Peterson said.

Peterson also recommended establishing clearer and more consistent pathways directly to courts for individuals subject to guardianship and making sure people have access to educational resources like the Center for Excellence in Supported Decision Making in Minnesota.

Farrell and his guests also discussed how you can prepare for the potential need for guardianship in your own life or the lives of your loved ones.

Guests: 

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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