Home > Uncategorized > The Britney Spears case is wrongly being used to attack guardianships of persons with developmental disabilities

The Britney Spears case is wrongly being used to attack guardianships of persons with developmental disabilities

In a recent article published in CommonWealth magazine, we discuss the misguided use by many activists of Britney Spears’ controversial guardianship case to discredit guardianship arrangements in general.

As we point out in our article, guardianship is under attack, and the Britney Spears case is wrongly being used to imply that all guardianship arrangements are abusive or exploitative.

We think Spears’ experience is also being used to advocate for legislation that could make it more difficult for family members to become or remain as guardians of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). In our experience, family members need to have guardianship to ensure they are consulted in the delivery of care and services to their loved ones.

But former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and former Secretary of Elder Affairs Paul Lanzikos appear to be using the Spears case to push for bills that might limit those family guardianship rights. Citing Spears’ case, Harshbarger and Lanzikos have proposed legislation to create a Massachusetts Office of Adult Decisional Support Services (H.1898 and S.974).

The functions of the Office, as listed in the legislation, are vague; but Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos’s own statements in a separate piece in CommonWealth raise concerns for us about what their proposed Office might be tasked to do.

Harshbarger and Lanzikos wrote that the Office would “improve oversight and best-practices in guardianship and conservatorship, as well as support alternatives to guardianship—such as supported decision-making—statewide” (my emphasis). More about Supported Decision-Making in a moment.

We certainly agree that there are compelling questions as to why someone like Britney Spears remains under guardianship, also known in some states as conservatorship. She is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, dancer, and actress who appears to be involuntarily trapped under the guardianship of her father. She appears to be cognitively normal and capable of making her own life choices.

But not all guardianship arrangements are like Spears’ relationship with her father, and not all persons under guardianship are capable of making their own life choices. Yet that is one of a number of distinctions that appear to be lost or glossed over in Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos’s piece.

Harshbarger and Lanzikos aren’t the only ones using the Spears case in this manner. Activitists around the country and even some members of Congress are using Spears’ experience to attack guardianship.

Supported Decision-Making needs safeguards

Supported Decision-Making (SDM) is an arrangement in which individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to help them make decisions about their care, finances, and living arrangements, and in other areas. SDM proponents maintain that guardianship unduly restricts the rights of disabled individuals to make those decisions.

We think SDM can hold promise for some high-functioning individuals; and we would support its adoption with adequate safeguards, particularly safeguards against the potential marginalization of family members.

The problem with proposed legislation to implement SDM in Massachusetts (H.272 and S.124) is that, as with earlier versions of the legislation, there appear to be few, if any, such safeguards in it. The bills still provide no standard for determining who might be eligible for SDM.

The SDM legislation continues to avoid the question whether everyone is really capable of making their own decisions in those very important areas. SDM proponents need to recognize that there are some individuals who do not have the cognitive skills necessary to make reasonable decisions. Those people need guardians – preferably guardians who are family members.

We are concerned that the creation of the Office of Adult Decisional Support Services may be a backdoor means of instituting SDM in Massachusetts as an “alternative” to guardianship.

As noted, the duties of the proposed Office of Adult Decisional Support Services are vague, and “decisional support services” are not even defined in the legislation. The Office would be tasked with “developing oversight and accountability procedures to prevent potential errors or abuses by decisional fiduciaries.”  We think better oversight and more accountability are needed in the probate system; but it is unclear what the proposed Office would consider to be abuses.

We have identified what we think are abuses, including the incentives the probate court system in Massachusetts gives to professional guardians to acquire as many wards as possible while doing little to represent them. This raises another distinction that Harshbarger and Lanzikos appear to have failed to make.

Abuses primarily appear to lie with professional guardians

Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos wrote that they are trying “to raise public awareness around guardianship and conservatorship practices that were brought to light by the Spears case, and to provide systems to protect the rights of individuals from the risks of overreaching, or in isolated cases, outright abuse (by) guardians or conservators.”

In our experience, the overreaching that they refer to applies much more commonly to professionals hired to serve as guardians than it does to family members.

Professional guardians of persons with development disabilities are paid by the state Department of Developmental Services (DDS) — a situation that appears to interfere with the guardians’ legal obligation to act in the best interest of their disabled clients. Family members are not paid for serving as guardians of their loved ones.

We have found that professional guardians of disabled clients often have relatively few interactions with their clients, and frequently side with DDS when family members have gotten into disputes with the agency over the care of those clients.

Need for family rights bill

We think reform of the probate system in Massachusetts is needed, and a first step would be passage of H.1733, a bill which would require that probate court judges consider parents of individuals in the DDS system to be suitable guardians for them. In too many instances, DDS officials, clinicians, providers, and probate judges dismiss families as uninformed or meddlesome.

But we have seen time after time that it is family members who have their loved ones’ best interest at heart. Family members are often the ones most intimately knowledgeable about their physical and emotional conditions.

A serious discussion of guardianship reform is sorely needed. But, as we noted in our article, the proposal from Harshbarger and Lanzikos appears to be one-sided. Basing their proposal on the Britney Spears case is a key indication of that.

  1. September 7, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    And again WHO are the folks spreading the LIES ah yes The National Disability Rights Network and the rest of the THEY as I call them. Until we all call out the LIES in a Book that has both a general discussion of various issues and then a Legal Brief about the various LIES

    One LIE is Guardianship ie parents make BAD guardians BECAUSE we want to CONTROL our children

    Our children are Segregated Adults can never be segregated a Legal Brief explaining

    Our Children are Exploited Total folly and again a Legal Brief

    Our Children are paid a subminimum wage yet another LIE

    Peace if you are interested in working on such a project to expose both the National Disability Rights Network and the rest of the THEY call me 414 403 1341 Tom Spellman

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  2. Anonymous
  3. Peter Gramenelles
    September 7, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    I knew that the unintended consequences of Britney Spears case would be a thorn in the side of parents of special needs children. Unfortunately, the parents of special needs children have a tough job and this media frenzy could make a tough job harder. This is an opportunity for the public to be educated. As it was said walk a mile in my shoes to understand the hurdles parents already have, we don’t need the uninformed frenzy to add to our burdens.

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  4. September 7, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    To compare Britney Spears to an adult with a severe intellectual disability is patently absurd. People in the DDS system need guardianships to keep them from being exploited by others who may not have their best interests in mind (or may have a vested interest in controlling them or exploiting them financially). My sister is non-verbal. She cannot make most decisions in any meaningful way. But even individuals who are verbal are still vulnerable if they have ID. By their diagnosis alone, many folks in DDS require a trusted individual to provide medical, financial, residential, and other decision making assistance. Without legal guardianship it has been my experience that family members are not always given information about their family members and it tempting for providers to exclude them if they become to assertive. I would never leave my sister without a guardian, and I recommend guardianships for nearly all families I talk to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • September 8, 2021 at 10:42 am

      As do I The issues is the the National Disability Right Network and the rest of the THEY as I call then are out front making claims that parents are bad guardians. They continue their attack against parents in favor of “supported decision making” Who pays for these “decision” makers. Oh that’s right they volunteer and who do they volunteer for?? The poorest the most difficult hummm. When will be begin the process of calling out the LIES of THEY? Peace Tom Spellman

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  5. Weru
    September 8, 2021 at 9:13 am

    When I see someone use words and phrases like “cognitively normal”, I wonder about their perspective towards others, especially people with developmental disability. Intellectual ability is a continuum and fluid property of human beings and a thought we can draw a line what is normal and not normal is a delusion. Such a thought is one that propagates the idea of people need to be taken care of instead of supported to live a life like anyone else. As pointed in this article, everybody does not need a guardian. Also for those who need help to make decisions, not all of them that need full guardianship. People should be assessed and supported depending on their skills in decision making. I have worked with individuals whose decision making skills were greater that their guardians. People are not all round skilled and may need different people to get support from to make decisions. I do not ask a doctor about my car problems so I would not expect one person to be making all decisions for an individual or even tens of individuals in the case of a corporate guardian. Let us not see people with developmental disability as people who need to be protected like eggs using restrictive methods but a diverse population that needs diverse supports to live a life worthy living. Like in the case of Ms. Spears, I have seen some guardians being barriers to happiness of people with developmental disabilities and I think it is time for a legislation that changes that.

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    • September 8, 2021 at 9:31 am

      Weru, I agree with you that not everyone needs a guardian. As the post says, we believe that Supported Decision-Making arrangements are appropriate for many people. At the same time, do you not accept that there are individuals who have low enough levels of cognitive functioning that they do need guardians?

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