Friday, December 11, 2020

Protected or Prisoner Part 7: Can the Britney Spears case be the tipping point for change within a system rife with abuse?

By Apryl Marie Fogel 

In this Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, file photo, singer Britney Spears makes an appearance in front of the Park MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Spears wants to be freed from her father. In a recent series of court maneuvers, Spears has sought greater say over her life and affairs, which for years have been under the control of a court conservatorship run mostly by her father, James Spears. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)

Policy changes and pop stars – two topics that aren’t frequently discussed together. With the growing spotlight on Britney Spear’s contested conservatorship, that is changing. Many in our nation are getting a first glimpse at a broken system that has ruined lives, drained bank accounts, and destroyed families across the nation.

Don’t get me wrong; even Britney will tell you: there’s a time and a place for the court to examine all evidence, hear all sides and make well-informed judgments on the appointment of a trusted and qualified conservator to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It’s been said Britney herself has agreed that her own conservatorship was initially needed. But her lawyer is claiming the situation in her case and, all too often in our own communities, the people who the court claims they are trying to protect actually find themselves prisoners. 

With Spears’ birthday this week and recent court arguments coming to light, we can all hope there is a tipping point coming. Not only a time for a change in Britney Spears’ case but also a time for state and federal lawmakers to reexamine and fix the problems that have repeatedly been acknowledged by families, national advocates, the Bar Association, and even the Government Accountability Office.

The #FreeBritney movement has taken hold and captured the attention of the nation and the world, and my hope is that the same people watching the case unfold come to see the bigger issue – that this is happening in cities and counties in each and every one of their backyards.

Multiple petitions to release Britney Spears from her conservatorship have gained the support of hundreds of thousands of people. The Twitter hashtag #FreeBrittney brings up countless tweets in many languages. With Britney’s 39th birthday on Dec. 2, the timeline is currently flooded with warm wishes and messages that include hopes that she will be freed from her conservatorship.

Articles can be found in nearly every media outlet across the web. From PeoplePage 6, and Vanity Fair to more traditional news outlets like CNN, ABC News, and NBC. It seems every outlet is detailing her case. A case that began in 2008 with a temporary order placing Britney under her father James Spears’ control during a mental health crisis is now on year 12, with no discernable end in sight. 

As Alabama Today reported previously in our second in this series, “The American Bar Association published a study in 2017 on the Restoration of Rights in Adult Guardianship that found, “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” when they no longer need it, or never did. The authors wrote that “guardianship is generally permanent, leaving no way out—‘until death do us part.’ ”

Earlier this week NPR did a story on conservatorships based on Britney’s case noting that a DOJ study found that there are an estimated 1.3 million people who are involved in conservatorship cases in the U.S. They play the tearful audio of the only time Britney detailed her feelings on her conservatorship publicly. She compared it to a prison sentence but said even then you know when you’re going to get out. She went on to say it was like groundhog day. 

It was widely reported that during a November hearing, Brittney’s attorney told the court, “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father.” Going on to say, “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” ABC News Reports detail how Britney is not only not getting a say in choices that affect her life; her estranged father isn’t even informing her of major decisions and changes that impact her.

It is unconscionable that a system designed to protect the vulnerable from being victims is making so many feel victimized and taking away their rights and their voices.

The system hasn’t spared us in Alabama or even Jefferson County, AL. either. We’ve had our own share of “egregious” violations of civil rights as well as a lack of transparency and accountability.

In the case that spurred months of investigative journalism and this series by Alabama Today, that of Joann Bashinsky (aka Mrs. B), the Alabama Supreme Court issued a scathing rebuke of Judge Alan King’s actions. Actions that others say are commonplace in courtrooms around the state. Emergency orders that went on for long periods of time and wards, or would be wards, left without representation or their voices heard.

As reported in the Washington Post the in the case before the Alabama supreme court, “Justices said Bashinsky’s basic due-process rights were egregiously violated when the probate court made the emergency decision without giving her time to obtain counsel after her lawyers were disqualified. The permanent petition remains pending before the court.

Joann Bashinsky is the widow of Sloan Y. Bashinsky, Sr. who owned the majority stock in Golden Enterprises, Inc., and who was the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Golden Flake Foods. Her personal estate is estimated to be worth $80 million, and her entire estate was valued at $218 million.
Is the Bashinsky case unique? No. How many more are like it? We don’t know, but we’re trying to find out. We have heard from others that Judge King was known to put wards under the supervision of his handpicked court-ordered conservators, even when family members were willing and able to fulfill the role.

We don’t know how many though. As the Government Accountability Office and other watchdog groups have noted, data on contested conservatorship and/or guardianship cases is mostly unknown.

I asked the Jefferson County probate court first in a series of emails and then in an official public record request, a series of questions about how many cases have been processed here in the last several years. My request was first dated June 15, 2020.  As of December 7, 2020, I have no answers. The probate office, in the first 48-hours, did provide a litany of excuses for not providing the records. First, they stated they needed a judge’s permission. Specifically, they said they needed Judge King’s permission, even though he retired prior to my request.  Second, the supervisor blamed the lack of ability to produce a response on the county’s dated computer system, even though the person at the desk told me that they used to be able to provide the data. Finally, I was told the delay was related to staffing shortages. The underlying cause of both the bad system and the staffing issue was apparently due to a county commission’s lack of funding. So what can we do? Besides following the Britney Spears case, we can contact our local, state, and federal lawmakers about reforming contested conservatorships and making the system more transparent. 

Alabama can adopt recommendations from the American Bar Association that would address this problem by making the type of information I’m requesting (the number of conservatorship and guardianship cases assigned to county-designated conservators public in both contested and uncontested cases) and requiring it to be presented to the state and made publicly available online by county.

The ABA, in a policy statement on the issue, said among other recommendations, it “encourages the federal government to provide funding and support for training, research, exchange of information on practices, consistent collection of data, and development of state, local and territorial standards regarding adult guardianship.”

A google search for “Britney Spears conservatorship” brings up over 2,530,000 hits. I hope that from her story, there is additional transparency and accountability for many who don’t have her fame, her wealth, or her legions of fans. You can help by calling your county commissioners and state legislators and telling them it is time to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

This is the latest installment in an ongoing investigative series. You can earlier posts Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here, Part 5 here, and Part 6 here. 

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