The #FreeBritney Movement Sets The Stage For Disability Rights Issues In Utah
Around 50 people gathered around the Utah State Capitol dressed in glittery-hot pink attire on July 14, to rally for Britney Spears as she headed to court for her conservatorship case in California. It was a part of a nationwide rally for the pop star.
In 2008, Spears was placed under a permanent conservatorship by her father Jamie Spears and lost control of her estate and other aspects of her life. A conservatorship is similar to a guardianship in other states, in the way it gives control to a court appointed guardian to make decisions for someone.
While the #FreeBritney movement has garnered national attention from the entertainer’s fans, activist Heidi Pomerleau with Disabled Rights Action Committee in Utah said Spears’ case is shedding light on a situation that frequently occurs to people living with disabilities.
“What we’re really trying to do is show that she’s not unique,” Pomerleau said. “This can happen to really just about anyone who has disabilities.”
She said individuals living with autism are more likely to be affected by these cases.
“We have a lot of people who have mental illnesses, who have things like autism,” Pomerleau said, “who are terrified that if they [say] the wrong thing to the wrong person or have an episode that this will happen to them, that someone will decide they need a conservatorship.”
According to the National Council on Disability, in 2018 an estimated 1.3 million people with disabilities were under guardianship. Pomerleau said activists like herself have been working to raise awareness around these issues.
“Part of it is disheartening because disability rights activists and disabled people have been trying for so long to bring attention to this,” she said. “It took a celebrity with a lot of money and a lot of fame and fans, to finally get people to pay attention.”
She said the most effective way to get change to happen in Utah is for it to happen at the federal level. Pomerleau said she hopes Spears' case will establish that change.
Nate Crippes, staff attorney at the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City, said conservatorship laws differ from state to state. In Utah, he said these types of cases allow a court appointed guardian to control someone’s money. A guardianship, however, gives much more control over someone's life.
“The reality of guardianship is you are essentially stripping a person of all their rights,” Crippes said. “They don’t get to make decisions anymore.”
Under state statute, for someone to be considered for guardianship, they must be deemed incapacitated.
Defined by Utah code, one factor taken into consideration is when a person is unable to “provide for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, health care or safety."
“That could be very broad to a person who actually just needed assistance with certain things,” he said. “Essentially a court could find that [someone] needs a guardianship even though there’s nothing mentally [wrong], making it difficult for them to make decisions.”
He said the language to enforce guardianships is concerning because there is a lot of room for legal interpretation.
Once a person is under one of these situations, it is incredibly difficult to fight and there are measures in place that discourage people from doing so,Crippes said. For example, if someone chooses to challenge their guardianship and loses, they have to pay the other side's legal fees.
“We hear things like ‘I just want to choose where I live. I just want to choose,’” he said about clients who come to the Disability Law Center.
Crippes said people who are interested in gaining guardianship should look at other less restrictive alternatives like a power of attorney or an alternative directive.