On August 26, pop star Britney Spears dropped a new single, “Hold Me Closer,” with Elton John, her first musical recording since being released from her 13-year conservatorship ordeal. As someone whose family was destroyed by guardianship, I appreciate Sir Elton’s act of love and generosity in reaching out to Britney for this project and am thrilled to see her begin to thrive after the trauma she had to endure. Then, on August 28, she posted audio on her YouTube account explaining why she declined paid interviews to tell her story, sharing what happened on her own platform to help others and hasten her own healing. The 22-minute recording chronicles the conservatorship from her point of view as someone whose family conspired to control her.
Spears’ case opened people’s eyes to the corrupt industry known as guardianship, in which people use the courts to take away others’ rights—and, too often, all of their money and everything they own. Her words offer enormous help to other victims, who are also starting to come forward. Included are individuals and coalitions across the country who are working to expose this system, a racket in which predatory agencies, lawyers, and judges use guardianships to defraud vulnerable individuals and their families to line their own pockets. This is a clear violation of the RICO statute.
At the state level, the group I work with (Victims and Families Harmed by Guardianship) has been calling for an end to the state probate systems that have been usurped by professional guardians. We have been reaching out to Senator Bob Casey, the current Chair of the Special Senate Committee on Aging, about this issue and we are gaining traction in New York. On August 25 in New York City, we saw a first: a Guardianship Roundtable hosted by State Senators Anthony Palumbo and George Borrello. Eight victims, including Libra Max and myself, spoke about what happened when a family member was offered or coerced into a guardianship. Their stories were horrifying.
The senators first became aware of this issue because of the Free Peter Max movement Libra started on behalf of her father Peter, the famous artist and long-time New York City resident. Last month, she filed a lawsuit against the New York City courts, alleging systemic due-process violations in the city’s guardianship system. In the suit, she describes how her father is being mistreated by his guardians, who she says are also preventing her from seeing him and monitoring her with surveillance cameras during her limited visits with him.
Sherry Moses of Manhattan was one of the victims who spoke at the Roundtable. She shared how her mother, Annette, was placed into a guardianship even though Sherry was caring for her at home. It all began after Sherry called the NYC Department of Aging for help with Annette’s diet. Her mother happened to have fallen when the department made one of its callbacks, prompting them to refer her case to Adult Protective Services, which then initiated the guardianship, which was overseen by a private agency, United Guardianship Services. The agency then forced her mother into a nursing home, where Sherry said she often saw her mother with bruises. Sherry’s father was also placed into the same nursing facility and was not allowed to return home. Her sister, Karen, was also living with the family and was evicted. The guardians spent all of the Moses’ money and sold their co-op. Sherry told the senators that she is trying to recover the property and hoped that they will share her story with their colleagues.
Sherry also pointed out the injustice of having to endure and rise above a lifetime of systemic racism as an African-American family, only to be trapped by guardianship and gaslighted by lawyers. She said that she wants to expose what has happened to her and her family to as many people as possible so this corruption can be stopped and the predators held accountable.
Another victim, Nadia Antrobus, shared an equally heartbreaking tale. She lived with her mother, Judith, a divorced psychologist, in an apartment they had shared on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for 40 years. Nadia began to notice signs of dementia in her mother and obtained a very limited power of attorney, arranged by a lawyer recommended by her mother’s best friend. When an estranged relative learned that Judith had agreed to give Nadia power of attorney, she exploded in anger and demanded control over everything. Within minutes of the relative’s filing a petition for guardianship in court, a judge appointed a lawyer as Judith’s guardian.
Nadia then told the senators how she had spent 30 years’ worth of savings on lawyers to fight the guardians, who exploited her but accomplished nothing, while also facing degradation by the court and the court-appointed guardian-lawyers. She described how Judith suffered severe psychological, physical, and financial abuse for the next six years while the guardians were awarded $475 an hour just for paying her bills. All told, Nadia testified, she and her family were drained of one million dollars.
Nadia shared how the guardians wanted to remove her and her mother from their apartment and conspired with the landlord to do so, instigating expensive court proceedings against them. When she complained about this, the guardians filed a restraining order against her, alleging Nadia was a danger to her mother. The judge agreed, forcing her to leave the apartment. With no money left, she was forced to live in shelters, which she said was terrifying.
During court-supervised visitations, Nadia said she noticed signs of neglect. For example, Judith’s phone and medical alert system were on the other side of the room and her walker was placed in another room altogether. Judith said she had fallen several times and also complained of not having enough food or toilet paper. She was sad: No one had told her why Nadia no longer lived there, so Judith thought she had alienated her.
During another visit, Nadia called 911 because her mother was not doing well. Rather than expressing concern, the guardian yelled at her for reporting it. Eventually, Judith was hospitalized and then sent to a nursing home, where she later died. Nadia reported that she was notified of her mother’s death by phone after the funeral had already taken place, and that she was unable to retrieve Judith’s ashes. She also said that she has still not received her inheritance, nor a special needs trust Judith had set up for her.
You can watch the entire three-hour stream of the Roundtable at the New York State Senate Republicans Facebook page.
These state-level hearings are very important, but if we seek systemic change, we need to take the fight to the national level. To that end, Michael Gamel-McCormick, Disability Policy Advisor for the Special Senate Committee on Aging, has announced that we can expect another hearing before the Committee with victims and families sometime in October 2022.(The first committee hearing, “Toxic Conservatorships: The Need for Reform,” took place last Fall. It was organized by the Senate Judiciary Committee and chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal.)
Victims and Families is also working on convening a hearing before the full Congress. Testimony at the highest level is needed so the issue can be addressed across the board. We must grab the public’s attention so we can begin a national dialogue on supporting America’s elderly and all people with disabilities with services tailored to their needs and preferences—unlike guardianship, which takes away rights, money, and property. This is not a pipe dream: After Spears was released from her conservatorship last year, Rep. Eric Swalwell invited her to speak before Congress. Though she declined, clearly there are many people, both famous and not, who would be willing to testify.
A Long-Term Problem
It is important to know the history of guardianship to understand what we need to do to end this racket. The concept derives from old English law, which was originally established to guard people’s right to inherit land. Those who were underage, “feeble-minded,” gamblers, or drunkards were put under guardianship so they couldn’t squander their inheritance. This system evolved into present-day guardianship, as described by Britney Spears and in the victims’ testimony above—a scam in which there is a monetary incentive to push or lure families into guardianship so lawyers, judges, and government agencies can take control of their assets and bill those assets until there is literally nothing left.
This is not news. In 1987, when Britney Spears was five years old, the Associated Press published a ground-breaking, year-long investigation, “Guardians of the Elderly: An Ailing System.” The series examined the courts in all 50 states. The reporters found a very troubled system that routinely put older Americans’ lives in the hands of others (typically court-appointed lawyers) with little to no evidence that they need such an arrangement. These individuals were then abandoned after these strangers had completely taken over their assets.
Part I of the series described how, in thousands of courts around the country, men and women lost their basic rights with the stroke of a judge’s pen. At the time of the report, there were between 300,000 to 400,000 elderly people under guardianship. Now, it is guesstimated that there are between 1.5 to 3 million people in this arrangement. There are no official data, however, because states and the federal government are not tracking the practice; some estimate that the figure may be as high as 4 million.
The AP series also documented how institutions were increasingly using guardianship to solve a variety of problems. For example, hospitals faced with Medicare regulations limiting coverage for extended care used guardianship to move patients into nursing homes. (Nursing homes required guardianship to ensure that someone would pay the bills.) The reporters also learned of an expedited process that allowed hospitals not only to file petitions of guardianship on elderly patients but also to move them into nursing homes before the petitions were even approved. It became “after-the-fact due process.”
Guardianship works the same way in 2022 as it did in 1987: If someone has a physical and/or mental health problem, an institution, family member, or another party can simply file to have them placed in the hands of a guardian, who will be in charge of running that person’s life. Families are sometimes lured into filing for guardianship as an efficient way to handle a matter, only to see an outsider be appointed instead of them. This overlord retains control of all their money and frequently concocts ways to bill the family for their “services,” enriching themselves while doing nothing to aid their “ward.” That is what happened to me and my dad when we filed for guardianship of my ailing mother.
Guardianship Must Be Abolished
It’s time to change the conversation around guardianship. Let’s not talk about fixing or offering alternatives to it. Continuing to do so gives credibility to the process and implies it should be the default approach to disability care, where anything else is considered a special case. We also need to eliminate the term “guardianship.” Consider that when one is terminated (a rare event), the process is known as “restoration of rights.” Since that is the case, let’s call guardianship what it is: “removal of rights.” The question we should be asking is not “When do we remove someone’s rights?” but “How do we support this individual?”
We can no longer ignore the incongruity of removing a person’s rights, money, and property in order to “protect” them. We should no longer tolerate a guardianship system that is so adversarial that as soon as it commences, family members are harassed and degraded when they try to see or help their loved one or regain control over their assets. Guardianship is a threat to us all because anyone can be subjected to it on flimsy pretexts and without warning. We must end it.
What You Can Do
We all need to speak up to educate the public and let our elected representatives know we are serious about change. Here are a few actions anyone can take:
- Join Libra Max in the fight to free her dad, Peter Max. Go to the FreePeterMax website to sign the letter there requesting he be released from guardianship and have his rights restored. It will be sent to the public officials who have jurisdiction over the matter.
- Ask your representatives for a full Congressional hearing on guardianship, similar to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. This will provide the audience we need to effect change at the national level and jump-start conversations about democracy and self-determination. It may also be useful to contact Congress members, including Eric Swalwell and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who have supported investigations into guardianship. A simple call to their offices is more effective than an email.
- Take action in your state. New York State residents should contact Senators George Borrello and Anthony Palumbo to ensure that they follow up the guardianship roundtable by convening a hearing in the legislature to hear more victim and family testimonies.
- Educate yourself on guardianship by watching the ABC-10 News investigation, “The Price of Care: Investigating California.” This series exposing a $13 billion industry began with a call from a victim to reporter Andie Judson. Her findings led the ABC10 team to produce a second in-depth series involving conservatorship, “The Price of Care: Taken by the State.” These reports provide a model for media coverage; make sure to ask your state and local news media to dig for stories on this under-reported, corrupt industry.
- Ask your state and federal elected officials to demand accountability in connection with guardianships. If someone commits a crime in connection with guardianship (fraud, theft, neglect, etc.), they need to be referred to the appropriate agency or to law enforcement. Otherwise, these crimes will continue.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.