In the United States – or in any country committed to preserving freedom – it shouldn’t be possible to permanently strip an innocent person of their most basic rights. Depriving someone of control over their money, their career, their health care and even their right to start a family is unacceptable in any society that values liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But over the past 13 years, this is exactly what has happened to Britney Spears.
Perhaps worse, this was all done in the name of her own protection under a conservatorship, a framework that is supposed to prevent scammers from robbing vulnerable Americans of everything they’ve worked for.
USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.
Sadly, people have used conservatorships to exploit Britney Spears and countless others without ever putting them in handcuffs or throwing them in jail.
Without a doubt, conservatorships serve a vital role for those who are truly incapacitated and need help managing their affairs or protecting themselves from fraudsters and thieves.
But one look at Britney Spears' situation would tell you she is far from incapacitated.
Until 2019, she released an album every two to three years. She had a residency show in Las Vegas for four years. She went on a global tour in 2018 that made more than $50 million. On top of all this, she has launched multiple businesses and served as a judge on "The X Factor."
This is someone who is capable enough to be the center of a multimillion dollar music, fashion and entertainment empire, but those keeping her locked in conservatorship would have us believe she’s incapable of managing her own health care?
Spears has spent the better part of a decade trying to end this nightmare, but she can’t get the courts to change the people running the conservatorship, let alone end it.
More ridiculous, until this month, she wasn't allowed to choose her own attorney to represent her in court. We don’t even do this to convicted serial killers and mob bosses.
Many Americans are at risk
If this can happen to her, it should say a lot about the abuses many of the estimated 1.3 million others in conservatorships in America might have suffered.
An unknowable number of these Americans had their constitutional and human rights stripped from them and were ruthlessly abused by their guardians long before Britney Spears topped the charts. And if we don’t act, they’ll continue to be abused long after she goes on her farewell tour.
So, how do we #FreeBritney and the countless other Americans who are trapped in these invisible prisons? We give them an escape hatch.
In a perfect world, conservatorships can protect the vulnerable from fraud and abuse. However, it should be much easier for those who are trapped in an abusive conservatorship to raise the alarm to their situation.
Many cases of fraud and abuse happen when the guardian is given total control over whom the person under conservatorship may speak to and when. They control what doctor they see, who their lawyer is, even who their friends are.
At this point, the guardian is free to rob and abuse the victim without consequence, as they know it’s impossible for the victim to alert family members or authorities without their knowledge.
Even if this weren’t the case, in some states the victim must prove fraud or abuse in court before the guardian can be removed. Given that the guardian controls almost every aspect of their lives, this is a tall order.
Bill would help victims get help
This is why we’ve introduced the FREE Act, a bill that would go a long way toward empowering Americans in conservatorships to blow the whistle on their abusers and restore their constitutional rights.
Under this legislation, all Americans would retain their right to petition the judge to replace a private guardian or conservator with a public guardian, one with no financial entanglements or conflicts of interest, regardless of the ability to prove misconduct or abuse.
Additionally, each person under guardianship would be provided an independent caseworker who would have unfettered access to monitor for signs of abuse or neglect, and inform them of their right to have a private guardian or conservator replaced.
A single instance of abuse like this is a tragedy. That this is widespread is downright criminal. It’s up to us to take action so this never happens again.
Rep. Nancy Mace is a Republican from South Carolina. Rep. Charlie Crist is a Democrat from Florida.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Britney Spears and many others can be freed from exploitation