SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Britney Spears’ fight to end the trusteeship that controlled vast areas of her life highlights ongoing efforts in the United States to reform state laws that advocates say are doing too much harm often to the people they were meant to protect.
Already this year, New Jersey cracked down on the circle of people who could request that someone be placed under the guardianship of a guardian. New Mexico has created an independent review process to monitor how guardianship is run, including the ability to audit bank records. And Oregon ensures that anyone under the care of a guardian gets free legal aid.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, on Thursday enacted a series of changes sparked by the attention spurred by Spears’ legal battle to free himself from a 13-year-old tutelage run by his father.
The law includes greater oversight of professional trustees, such as those who controlled the life and financial decisions of Spears. It will increase scrutiny for financial, physical or mental abuse, which could result in fines of $ 10,000.
The new law will also allow those under guardianship to choose their own lawyers, something Spears was finally allowed to do in July.
California lawmakers passed a series of reforms to the state’s guardianship system in 2006, but they were never implemented by the courts due to budget cuts during the recession in 2008 – the same year, Spears been placed in guardianship after suffering a mental health crisis.
The system “is lacking in people from all walks of life, whether it is a global superstar whose struggles unfortunately take place in public or a family who does not know how to care for an elderly relative,” said State Congressman Evan Low, a Democrat who introduced the bill after watching the recent documentary “Controlling Britney Spears”.
Low added: “This bill has received unanimous and bipartisan support throughout the process because it is painfully clear that we can and must do better.”
Changes to guardianship laws in other states have also sought to protect assets and provide less severe alternatives to guardianship, also known as guardianship.
In New Jersey, lawmakers introduced legislation that would do away with a “catch-all” category that allows virtually anyone who claims to be concerned about the financial or personal well-being of another adult to ask the court to take their child away. power of decision.
Studies have shown that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illnesses, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are at high risk of being placed in guardianship.
“Let’s say a rich woman is worth millions and millions, and their nephew walks around saying she isn’t all there and needs to be taken care of.” Well, under the current law you can do it, ”said Carol Murphy, a member of the Assembly from New Jersey, Democrat who was one of the main sponsors of the bill. “I want it to be difficult for someone to be conservative and take money from someone without adequate protection for that person.”
High-profile cases of guardians exploiting vulnerable dependents have led Nevada and New Mexico to revise their guardianship laws.
New Mexico reformed its system starting in 2018, amid an increase in public complaints and a federal investigation that found 1,000 customers lost more than $ 10 million in an embezzlement scheme. multi-year fund perpetrated by Ayudando Guardians based in Albuquerque. In July, a married couple who helped run the business were sentenced to 62 years in combined prison for fraud, theft and money laundering. A judge said their conduct left former clients destitute and homeless.
The original legislation provided better access to secret guardianship files and court proceedings. It also prohibited guardians from limiting visits to the elderly and infirm after families complained that they were not allowed to visit or communicate with loved ones. The state added bail and training requirements for conservatives, new rights for people with disabilities, and a grievance process to challenge court rulings.
New Mexico State Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino said he was happy that Spears’ legal battle put the trusteeship process in the spotlight. The Democrat has co-sponsored successful legislation that pays court staff to review Tory and Trusteeship accounts.
“It really gets to the heart of the matter,” said Ortiz y Pino. “You take away basic civil rights from a person, and it is not obvious to the casual observer whether a person is more capable of managing their own affairs. This is why you are asking someone to assess the person’s mental acuity. You ask someone to check if there are less restrictive options. You are trying to integrate some protections.
In March, New Mexico lawmakers gave the state’s auditor’s office new authority to review annual reports of conservatives and trustees, conduct audits and assign bank records.
“It’s not necessarily public transparency, but third-eye transparency is about what the conservative does, in addition to the judge,” said Democratic state representative Marian Matthews, co-sponsor of the legislation.
After a guardian was accused in 2017 of siphoning more than half a million dollars from hundreds of people she had been appointed by the courts to protect, Nevada lawmakers enshrined the right to a adult guardianship lawyer, created a system to allow people to nominate guardians in case they become incapacitated and form a compliance office to crack down on abuse.
Karen Kelly, who heads the Clark County Public Guardian’s Office, said the number of private guardianship has fallen since the reforms took effect and more and more people have challenged the proposed provisions.
In June, the Democratic governor of Oregon signed a bill that provides legal advice – paid for by the state – to those potentially in custody.
“Protected persons currently have no right to representation, which obviously sets up people without means for potential abuse,” said Senator Michael Dembrow, a Democrat who was one of the sponsors of the measure.
Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin are among a growing number of states seeking to offer a less restrictive alternative to full trusteeship, a measure meant to allow people to rule their own lives.
The laws, supported by disability advocates, require courts to consider “supported decision-making” agreements. They allow a person with a disability to choose someone who can help them with critical tasks such as reviewing a lease, but who cannot make decisions for them.
“We are not calling for abolishing guardianship, but for changing the paradigm in which we see people with disabilities and their ability to make choices in their own lives,” said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, a group of defense of Southern California.
Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said the approach applied “the lightest touch possible” to the formal surveillance process.
Borel said it was extremely difficult for someone to be removed from a trusteeship. In one memorable case, he recalled a man with an intellectual disability who had the support of his caretakers at a public institution to move into a community housing center.
But the move was initially refused because the man remained under his grandmother’s tutelage – even though she had died years before.
“It is always more difficult to have your rights restored than to never submit to unnecessary tutelage,” he said.
Associated Press editors Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Kathleen Foody in Chicago; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Samuel Metz in Carson City, Nevada, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon contributed reporting.