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On Capitol Hill, #FreeBritney Is Just The Beginning

A man waves a "Free Britney" flag during a rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. protesting the conservatorship of Britney Spears July 14, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
A man waves a "Free Britney" flag during a rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. protesting the conservatorship of Britney Spears July 14, 2021.

In 2018, a bipartisan pair of senators introduced legislation that would provide support to individuals placed under guardianships, a legal mechanism set up for people who the court deems unable to manage their affairs. The bill never got a vote.

But on Tuesday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, are reintroducing the Guardianship Accountability Act with optimism that this time the bill will have the political and public support to advance.

What changed? Simply put: Britney Spears.

The pop icon waged a highly publicized legal battle to terminateher conservatorship, a form of guardianship, that controlled her personal life and finances since 2008. Her efforts were punctuated by various deep media dives into her alleged abuse, the latest of which debuts Tuesday on Netflix.

"What started as a well-known figure in American pop culture allows the spotlight to be shown on some people whose circumstances might go unexamined if we didn't have this focus," Casey told NPR in an interview prior to the bill's reintroduction.

"Right now, the best estimate is we have right now about 1.3 million people living under a guardianship," Casey said. "And so you've got an awful lot of Americans that have some degree of control being exercised over their lives."

The Guardianship Accountability Act was first introduced when Collins chaired the Aging Committee and Casey was the panel's ranking member. The pair continue to work together on advancing this legislation, which acts on findings from the senators' 2018 guardianship investigation.

The investigation found that once a guardianship is imposed, there are "few safeguards in place to protect against individuals who choose to abuse the system." The report on the investigation called for greater oversight of guardians to protect against abuse and exploitation.

Casey says that starts with data.

"At both the federal and state level, there just aren't the resources to collect that data," he says.

Without that data, he says, it's impossible to break down disparities in which groups of Americans are being abused or exploited.

"If we don't start doing a better job of having national sets of data, we're not going to know — are our rates higher for, say, African Americans or people from low income backgrounds or one group of Americans versus the other," he described.

The Guardianship Accountability Act would create a national resource center that would publish best practices for states to follow, share training materials for guardians, and maintain a database on state laws and less restrictive alternatives to guardianships themselves. It would also expand the availability of federal grants to help training for court officials and expand the use of background checks for guardians.

Casey says he is realistic about the procedural challenges.

"Everything's difficult in the Senate, but it's enormously helpful to have a Republicans cosponsor when you start," he says. "You're already more than a couple yards down the field at that point."

In a statement to NPR, Collins said the measure would protect Americans who "have been ruthlessly exploited by caretakers who have taken advantage of the guardianship system."

"Preventing guardianship abuse requires law enforcement and social service agencies at all levels of government to work together, and the Guardianship Accountability Act promotes this kind of collaboration," she said. "I urge my colleagues to support this bipartisan legislation to help hold criminals accountable and protect seniors and others who receive care under guardianships."

Their work could be bolstered by the fact that there's already widespread bipartisan support for the issue on Capitol Hill.

In the House, there's already proposed legislationby Reps. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. and Charlie Crist, D-Fla., that also supports maintaining databases of guardianships. Another bill introduced by Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., would limit conservators' authority over their charges' birth control — following Spears' claim that her conservators prevented her from removing her intrauterine device to have more children.

Casey says it's a positive sign there's "not only bipartisan support, but public momentum for change."

Until the bill reforms elements of the system Casey said can easily lead to abuse, he advises those who are in or who have family in a guardianship need to remain "aggressively vigilant."

"They should arm themselves with information," he says, "ask questions, demand answers."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.