Cathy Schottenstein Blog
How the Legal System Allowed a Criminal Family to Seize Control of One Woman’s Life
The New Yorker recently published a comprehensive article entitled “Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare” chronicling how the pop star’s father and a team of lawyers seized control of her life, her career, and her finances—and held onto that control for well over a decade. Spears, thirty-nine, has spent the past thirteen years living under a conservatorship, “a legal structure,” The New Yorker defines “in which a person’s personal, economic, and legal decision-making power is ceded to others.” Commonly called a guardianship, the arrangement is intended for people who cannot take care of themselves.
The conservatorship was instituted by Spears’s family—in part out of real concerns for her mental health, people close to the family told The New Yorker. But the family was divided by money and fame, and Spears was ultimately stripped of her rights to such an extent that she recently called 911 to report herself as a victim of conservatorship abuse and alleged in public court that one of her most basic rights—her reproductive freedom—had been taken away. (You can find a link to The New Yorker article at the bottom of this blog.)*
Conservatorships can protect people who are elderly, or who live with severe disabilities or debilitating mental illness. But The New Yorker points out that there is also a wide range of alternatives to conservatorship that are less strict than what Spears has experienced, such as conditional powers of attorney or formal shared control of finances.
By outward appearance, since the establishment of Spears’s conservatorship, the pop star’s career has never been better. According to the article, she has released four albums, headlined a global tour that grossed a hundred and thirty-one million dollars, and performed for four years in a hit Las Vegas residency. Yet during this time her conservators have controlled all her spending, communications, and personal decisions, and most of her family members (including both her parents) receive an annual salary from the pop star as part of the conservatorship.
This past April, Spears requested a hearing, in open court, to discuss the terms of her conservatorship arrangement. Before the hearing, members of Spears’s team, most of whom have had little or no direct contact with her for years (despite being on her payroll), didn’t expect drastic changes to result. On June 23rd that sentiment quickly changed as she began her searing testimony.
For twenty-three minutes over the phone, Spears described in shocking detail how she had been “isolated, medicated, financially exploited, and emotionally abused.” She blamed the California legal system, which she said let it all happen. She added that she had tried to complain to the court before but had been ignored, which made her “feel like I was dead,” she said—“like I didn’t matter.” She wanted to share her story publicly, she said, “instead of it being a hush-hush secret to benefit all of them.” She added, “It concerns me I’ve been told I’m not allowed to expose the people who did this to me.” At one point, she told the court, “All I want is to own my money, for this to end, and for my boyfriend to drive me in his fucking car.” Read more
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Mahatma Gandhi made that statement in the early 1900s, right at the start of the 20th Century. Who are those most vulnerable members? Certainly, they include children, the mentally and physically disabled, and our aged population. Today, 21 years into the 21st Century, Gandhi’s words come back to haunt us as we enter World Elder Abuse Month this June. A decade ago, The United Nations designated June 15th as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day to raise mindfulness and knowledge of elder abuse and the various forms it can manifest which include financial, emotional, and physical abuse.
Experts have identified seven types of elder abuse to watch out for: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, neglect, abandonment, financial abuse, and self-neglect. Financial abuse strikes a particular nerve with me since that is what happened to my 94-year-old grandmother Beverley Schottenstein. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, elders are more willing to self-report financial exploitation than other forms of abuse. They are often fearful to report physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect due to the possibility of being harmed. Most elder abuse victims are dependent on their abusers to meet their basic needs, placing the abused in an extremely vulnerable position, fearful of retaliation. Like what happened to my grandmother, most acts of abuse are committed by family members (40% adult children, 15% spouse, 38% other family members). In fact, only 7% of elder abuse cases are committed by non-family members. Read more
When journalist Tom Schoenberg, a longtime reporter for Bloomberg News, was contacted by a family friend about my grandma’s upcoming trial against her grandsons Evan and Avi and their former employer J.P. Morgan, he reached out to better understand the dynamics of the legal proceedings.
My first call with Tom took place on October 9, 2020, just one week before Nanny’s FINRA trial was set to begin. It was a conference call, with Tom in Washington D.C., me in New Jersey, and Nanny in Florida. My grandma’s devoted live-in aide Dawn Henry also participated on the sidelines as Nanny spoke, occasionally chiming in to remind her of certain key dates and facts.
I didn’t know it then, but that first hour-long conversation with Tom would be the beginning of a five-months-long working relationship with Bloomberg News. It was a rich and eye-opening experience that has made me even more respectful of professional journalism, and particularly of Tom and of Bloomberg News—the outlet’s careful evaluation of all sides, the integrity and fairness in their final reporting, and once the story was out, their astonishing global reach. Read more