Pop star inspires Silicon Valley lawmaker’s conservatorship reform
State Assemblyman Evan Low on the Assembly floor on June 14. Photo courtesy of the California Assembly Democratic Caucus.

A Silicon Valley lawmaker is vowing to continue his fight for conservatorship reform after pop icon Britney Spears recently slammed California for allegedly failing to protect her from abuse and exploitation.

“We need to close loopholes and create accountability and transparency,” state Assemblyman Evan Low said in a statement. “I will continue to fight for Ms. Spears and others who have been let down by California’s failed conservatorship system.”

Conservatorships, which are governed by state law, are intended to protect adults who can no longer care for themselves. A court judge appoints a person or professional organization to serve as a conservator for the incapacitated person and make decisions on their behalf.

Conservators are supposed to act in the best interest of their wards. But Spears, who testified virtually in Los Angeles Superior Court last month, alleged that everyone involved with her conservatorship abused and exploited her for their own financial gain. The pop star has released four albums, toured globally and completed a four-year Las Vegas residency since being placed in the conservatorship in 2008.

Low, who researched conservatorships earlier this year after watching a documentary about Spears, said the system’s failings are widespread. In response, the Silicon Valley Democrat introduced a bill in February intended to help protect conservatees from abuse and fraud.

AB 1194 passed the state Assembly with a vote of 76-0 on May 28 and is under review in the state Senate. Legislators recently referred the bill to the Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

Among other provisions, the bill would increase transparency by requiring all professional conservators with websites to post a range of their fees online. It would allow any interested person with personal knowledge of a conservatee to petition the court to investigate allegations of abuse—and it would require the court to investigate those claims.

The bill would additionally require a court investigator to gather and review relevant medical reports about a proposed conservatee, including reports from their primary care physician.

More than a million people are in conservatorships in the United States. In Santa Clara County, 1,067 residents are under conservatorships, according to data San José Spotlight obtained from the county Social Services Agency.

Of those conservatees, 847 are in mental health conservatorships for adults with severe mental illness. The other 220 residents are in probate conservatorships due to dementia, brain injuries or other developmental disorders that leave them susceptible to undue influences.

In terms of gender, 578 local conservatees are male, 466 are female, three identify as transgender and 20 are unspecified. Ages vary, with 199 conservatees between ages 18-35, 260 between ages 36-55, 239 between 56-65 and 365 are age 66 or older. Four conservatee’s ages are unlisted.

Kathy Forward, a consultant and former executive director for NAMI Santa Clara County, said more oversight would be beneficial within the conservatorship system. NAMI is a nonprofit that supports and advocates for those with mental illnesses.

“We hear mixed stories about how it goes,” she told San José Spotlight. “I think it depends on the conservators.”

Some conservators readily take into consideration a conservatee’s wishes and keep them informed about major decisions, Forward explained. Others leave them out of the loop entirely.

“Some conservatees don’t have a clue about what’s going on in their life and they get very upset about that,” she said.

Claudia Harty, program manager at Parents Helping Parents, said it’s important to keep in mind that many people seeking conservatorships are just trying to protect a vulnerable family member. Parents Helping Parents is a local nonprofit that supports children and adults with special needs.

Harty explained many parents who come to her organization are used to caring for a child with severe disabilities. But once those children turn 18 their parents can no longer legally act on their behalf.

“They need a conservatorship to continue advocating for their loved ones in the best way possible,” she said.

According to the Judicial Branch of California, a conservatorship should only be established if there is no other way to meet a person’s needs. Less restrictive alternatives should be considered, including an informal personal care arrangement or a court authorization for medical treatment.

As for Spears’ case, it’s unclear what steps the court will take next. But the pop star made her voice heard.

“I shouldn’t be in a conservatorship if I can work and provide money and work for myself and pay other people,” Spears said during her testimony. “It makes no sense. The laws need to change.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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