Senators Eye Greater Scrutiny Of Guardianships
Inspired by the case of pop star Britney Spears, a pair of senators want the federal government to increase oversight and produce more information about guardianships and conservatorships across the country.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., are asking the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to step up in a letter sent this month to top officials at each agency. They’re seeking information about what data is collected about people under guardianship or conservatorship, the guardians involved, the value of the assets controlled by guardians, complaints filed against them and more.
“Ms. Spears’ case has shined a light on longstanding concerns from advocates who have underscored the potential for financial and civil rights abuses of individuals placed under guardianship or conservatorship, typically older Americans and Americans with intellectual, developmental and mental health disabilities,” Warren and Casey wrote in the letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Despite these concerns, comprehensive data regarding guardianship (referred to as conservatorship in some states) in the United States are substantially lacking — hindering policymakers and advocates’ efforts to understand gaps and abuses in the system and find ways to address them.”
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The request from the senators comes as Spears’ case has brought intense interest in guardianships and conservatorships. Spears has been under a conservatorship since 2008 and she recently told a judge that she has been forced to perform, medicated and prevented from removing her birth control device under the arrangement, which she said she wants to end.
The senators cite data in their letter from the National Center for State Courts indicating that about 1.3 million adults are living under guardianships or conservatorships with some $50 billion in assets. But, they say that the estimates are unreliable since guardianship is handled at the state level and practices vary such that “in many states, it is impossible to identify the number of active guardianship cases.”
Above and beyond the number of cases, Warren and Casey want information about any data collected on the use of guardianship alternatives like supported decision-making as well as efforts from the federal agencies to prevent guardianships or support those involved in such arrangements.
“While guardians and conservators often serve selflessly and in the best interest of the person under guardianship, a lack of resources for court oversight and insufficient due process in guardianship proceedings can create significant opportunities for neglect, exploitation and abuse,” the senators wrote. “Although guardianship decisions lie exclusively within the authority of state courts, they can also raise significant federal spending and policy interests, making imperative that federal officials work collaboratively with state courts to identify gaps in our understanding of problems with America’s guardianship system and develop solutions to address them.”
Neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Health and Human Services responded to requests for comment.