Conservatorship is a disability issue

Picture of Bill Cosby and Britney Spears, with the words underneath "Bill Cosby is free and Britney Spears is not, because women's trauma is still ignored"
A meme shared by Elle UK last week

A theme I keep coming across in discussions of the Britney Spears conservatorship case is the presumption that she is in this predicament because she is a woman. Yesterday I came across a meme that had been shared by Elle UK (the fashion magazine) which read “Bill Cosby is free and Britney Spears is not because women’s trauma is still ignored”. This reflects a typical trend across social media to conflate situations that are totally different, often in different countries or different US states which have different legal systems (Spears lives in California, while the Cosby case was in Pennsylvania), often on the basis of one superficial similarity. Cosby was freed (after serving two years in his 80s, which does not equate to “getting away with it”) not because judges believed he was innocent but because they believed the case against him was legally invalid, while Spears is actually not locked up. But that is not the point of this post.

Conservatorship or guardianship is a device typically used to control or manage the affairs of disabled and elderly people of both sexes. In some cases someone is wholly incapacitated and needs another adult to run their affairs or control their finances so as to provide the care they cannot provide themselves, to order food, clothing and toiletries and other essentials and pay for housing and people to care for them; otherwise, they would simply not eat. Others need a certain amount of help running their affairs but can make some decisions about their everyday lives; they do not need to be told what to eat or to wear, for example. Elderly people in the US have been targeted by law firms that seek to find them incapacitated so that they can control their money and dip into it when they need to use it, or to have them housed (incarcerated) in care homes they have an interest in. In other cases, people are subjected to guardianship because people refuse to admit that they are more capable than they think, or because they were at one point unable to run their own affairs because of a period of mental illness or a head injury, but have since recovered but the people who control their affairs will not let go. This may be the case for Britney Spears; the same happened to a man in the UK who suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident and won a £1.7m payout, but this was placed in a court-controlled account and his ‘deputy’ not only took a cut whenever the owner required any of his own money, but refused to release funds so that doctors could reassess his capacity. Clearly there is a conflict of interest here. Another complaint was that the payouts were not invested and were depreciating when they could have been increasing in value. (This case was last reported on in 2013; it is possible that the guardianship has been lifted since.)

Picture of Jenny Hatch and Kelly Morris, two white women with blonde hair; Hatch has Down's syndrome. Kelly has her arm round Jenny and is kissing the side of her face. They are standing in front of a wood panelled wall with two small pictures on it.
Jenny Hatch and Kelly Morris

A more typical case of an abusive guardianship in the US was that of Jenny Hatch, in Virginia, whom I wrote about here back in 2013 when her case finally came to court (the back story can be found on an old blog by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg here). The arrangement had been forced on her by the courts at her parents’ application after she required medical treatment as the result of a cycling accident, and it resulted in her being held in a group home, prevented from seeing her friends and forced to undertake menial work for token wages. The courts ultimately struck this arrangement down and allowed her to go and live with the two friends (one of them, Kelly Morris, is pictured with Jenny here) she had been living with before and awarded them temporary guardianship, expecting that this arrangement would lead to her regaining control over most of her affairs. This was the result of a campaign by disability charities to allow supported decision making by people with some capacity. Some of the same charities have made the same point following the campaign to “free Britney”; it may well be that Spears does not need any form of guardianship at all, however. She had a period of mental illness many years ago, but that does not mean she is still ill or disabled now.

Some of the implications of Spears’s guardianship are the result of her being a woman; she has reported that she was fitted with an IUD without her consent and was refused its removal when she wanted it. But generally, abusive adult guardianship is something that affects elderly and disabled people and should not be misrepresented as a “women’s issue” just because it is something many women feel strongly about because one famous woman is affected. The majority of victims may be women, because women tend to live longer, but it is not typically imposed on people because of their sex but because of real or perceived disability.

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