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Britney Spears’s inability to escape her conservatorship exposes a punitive civil court system that fails to protect those with mental health issues.
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They say that when you become a celebrity, you lose the ability to live a normal life. For Britney Spears, as she explained in sobering and powerful court testimony in her fight to end her 13-year conservatorship, it is one that she is desperate to get back.
Spears’s voice has echoed through the hearts of many for over a decade, but what’s become apparent as the #FreeBritney movement has grown, is the connection between Spears’s experience and the many others who have faced down a U.S. court system that has deemed them too mentally unfit to make their own decisions. Britney’s seemingly daily changing road through her conservatorship has been shocking. But it has not shocked the litany of women and other marginalized groups that have been accused of having a mental health crisis or complication. Having such an accusation of a mental “deficiency” can send a person on an emotional and financially devastating journey of legalities, and for women and parents, these things become even worse.While Britney’s conservatorship is an extreme case given her financial capabilities (however denied they are to her with her conservatorship), the legal actions taken against those deemed “unfit”—actions that Spears said made her feel “ganged up on”—are common. These actions are generally hidden from view due to piles of unpublished court result opinions that cannot be used to assist future litigations.
Specifically, oppression of mental health issues is perhaps most present within civil court systems. Civil courts have fewer available rights and liberties to activate than criminal court procedural processes due to the lower standards of required proof needed to level and enact punishment on the accused.
The family court system, for example, operates as a battlefield for those codified as being “degenerates” or “unfit.” Domestic abusers are known to use and abuse mental health as a tool to gain control over the other parent. If the woman is accused of “parental alienation” (a form of emotional abuse which seeks to vilify and otherwise attempt to get the child to separate from one parent) she is at a higher risk of the possibility of losing her child than a father would be.
Another harsher example of this is within dependency courts. These courts, associated with child welfare, can overlap with family court because an abusive partner can accuse the other parent of being mentally unfit. Litigation can then expand to state actors within the prosecution, who can engage in coercive techniques that leave the defendant less capable of enacting their defense. Whether or not the party consents will not guarantee them to be free from aggressive and traumatic treatment in the courts and to “correct” the alleged egregious action. The governing laws and procedures outlined in dependency court via Welfare and Institutions Codes are debatably ambiguous. A person accused of being mentally unfit (poverty or homelessness can also be manipulated into an alleged mental health concern) will face an uphill battle for their children.
These parents in the dependency system face a similar battle to Spears’s. Behaviors of the accused parent will be scrutinized extensively with limited protections or capabilities for the accused to fight allegations. Upon entry of this system, an accused parent will have a report written about them by a social worker. Once written, this document will be deemed to be truth by default due to the courts reliance on a process called “prima facie.” Succinctly, that means the burden goes to the accused to prove that the allegations are false; or, the party is presumed guilty until proven innocent. A parent in these cases, akin to the lowered ability to defend themselves such as in a conservatorship, has fewer rights to a defense than in criminal litigation.
Meanwhile, social workers, like police, operate with qualified immunity. While some may believe that they work with good intentions, this is not always accurate. A legal team for social workers actually argued in court that they had “the right to lie” in proceedings.
Things don’t get any easier once past these tenets, either. These court proceedings are closed access, meaning an accused “offending” parent can be told just once via gag orders or other court-sanctioned behavioral control methods that their voices do not have priority in dependency court. And often, the public cannot help them because of the secrecy insisted upon by the court. Whatever happens in them is couched into the “best interest of the child” in the governing codes that the court operates on.
The aftermath shows a litany of civil rights lawsuits connected to dependency proceedings. These lawsuits tell a war-like story of the parents who fight for their children in court must endure. It is one in which parents accused of mental health concerns have been denied by some, but perhaps not universally held belief, of a fundamental right to parent.
Outside of custody battles, having (or being accused of having) a mental health crisis is rife with behind-the-scenes hardships. Last month, the World Health Organization acknowledged this stating that “severe human rights abuses and coercive practices are still far too common in countries of all income levels. Examples include forced admission and forced treatment; manual, physical and chemical restraint; unsanitary living conditions; and physical and verbal abuse.”
While this exposure might seem like a recent development, these violations are not new. Women and other marginalized groups have been historically affected by human rights violations codified in “care” under the guise of mental health or “cleanliness.” Britney’s testimony about her father having control over her reproductive care is reminiscent of the dark history of eugenics and control over women’s bodily autonomy. Sterilization and other forms of governance of reproductive bodily methods have been tools to exercise control across the United States, and a historical examination of American healthcare is tied to horrific experimentation on enslaved Black women. Meanwhile, a look toward present-day affairs at the U.S. Southern Border shows the sterilization of women and the separation of parents and families.
Individuals who fail to fit a strict set of standards, standards which are defined by a misogynistic, racist system, are treated as second-class citizens. Being labeled “unfit” in court means that your personhood is up for debate. You aren’t “allowed” to make any decisions since your mind is clearly “unfit” to make decisions at all.
Ultimately, the reality is that our courts are stacked against individuals accused of mental health issues. Once someone gets caught in a web of an accusation, their accusers hold more power.
Spears testified saying “I’m traumatized. I cry all the time.” Fans hearing these words may feel them familiar. Her song “Lucky,” among others in her catalogue, potentially hinted at a pain long before her conservatorship became public: “They say she’s so lucky. She’s a star. But she cries cries cries in her lonely heart thinking if there’s nothing missing in my life, why do these tears come at night?” Folks accused of mental health concerns like her are anything but lucky for the trauma endured.
Perhaps what outsiders can take away from witnessing Spears’s cry for freedom is it is a cry shared by many, many other people across the socio-economic landscape. This is a movement bigger than #FreeBritney. This is a movement for all of us who, in some form, are all suffering like her.
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