Beyond Britney: Abuse, Exploitation, and Death in the U.S. Guardianship Industry


All three nightmares share a common cause: these people had been placed in the care and control of legal guardians. The American guardianship system was designed as a last resort to be used only in the rare and drastic case where a person is totally incapacitated mentally or physically. In these cases, conscientious guardians can provide vital support, often in complex and distressing circumstances. But a BuzzFeed News investigation found the system has grown into a large, lucrative, and poorly regulated industry that has subsumed over a million people, many of whom insist they are capable of making their own decisions, and put them in danger. abuse, theft and even death.

The #FreeBritney movement has drawn international attention to the Britney Spears case, and wrongdoing by individual guardians have surfaced in the past, but our investigation reveals the systemic failings behind these isolated stories.

In local courts across the country – often woefully inadequate for the vast power at their disposal – guardians, lawyers and expert witnesses frequently appear before the same judges in an established web of overlapping financial and professional interests. They are often paid out of the estate of the person whose liberty is at stake, creating powerful incentives to form and keep trustees in place.

“The judge knows the lawyers, the lawyers know each other,” said J. Ronald Denman, a former district attorney and Florida lawyer who has challenged dozens of guardianship over the past decade. “The amount of abuse is insane. You are going against a rigged system.

Without being convicted of any crime, those found incapable face some of the harshest action the courts can take against any American citizen. Most of the freedoms set out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: they can lose their voting rights, get married, start a family, decide where they live, consent to treatment. medical, spending their money, looking for a job, or owning property.

Thousands of professional tutors, lawyers and companies now hold a stranglehold over assets totaling tens of billions of dollars. Some guardians have hundreds of people under their control. And despite the public perception that guardianship is a protective measure for the elderly near death, the system traps large numbers of young people.

BuzzFeed News has searched hundreds of thousands of court documents, obtained confidential mental health and financial records, reviewed hundreds of guardianship cases, gathered proprietary data from large public record requests, conducted hundreds of interviews and conducted a detailed review of guardianship laws in all 50 states. Our investigation reveals an opaque, overgrown and faulty system wielding vast and frightening power in the dark. “

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