Last year, the Britney Spears conservatorship battle sparked a worldwide dialogue on the complexities of managing those deemed incapacitated. Her publicized struggles underscored the necessity of balancing protection with personal autonomy in guardianship arrangements.

On Oct. 25, the Brandeis University Press, in collaboration with the Women’s Studies Research Center and with support from the Brandeis Journalism and Legal Studies Programs, held a book launch and conversation featuring author and journalist Diane Dimond and her latest book titled "We're Here To Help: When Guardianship Goes Wrong."

In a discussion moderated by Prof. Ann Silvio (JOUR), past producer of “Sixty Minutes,” Dimond highlighted predatory guardianships, the lack of regulations and supervision, and the secrecy surrounding the issue.

“There was a guardian in Nevada who was so evil,'' Dimond said. “I know these words sound hard coming from a journalist who’s talking about some who they’ve never met, but it's pure evil that when your ward dies, you don't tell their family.” 

Under both voluntary and involuntary conservatorship, individuals deemed incapacitated, known as "wards," often lose their civil rights, such as the right to make decisions about their finances, healthcare, or living arrangements. The guardian then assumes the responsibility of managing the ward's financial assets and property. 

During her eight years of research for the book, Dimond encountered endless stories of a system designed to protect those incapacitated by mental and/or physical disability gone horribly wrong. She illustrates how the system becomes “predatory,” “causing the early deaths of wards, the isolation of their families, and most importantly, the desolation of their finances.” She reveals that there is a network of guardians, lawyers, and judges that work together to take advantage of the wards and benefit from guardianship.

“It [has] shaken my faith in the justice system, I have to be honest with you” Dimond said in response to a question about the impact of her eight year investigation on her perception of the judiciary system. “I look at judges differently now. I look at lawyers differently now. I'm sorry, I know there are great lawyers in guardianship, but I'm a cynic by nature,” she continued. 

Dimond spoke to a complex intersection of gender roles and the dynamics of guardianship. Throughout her extensive research, Dimond observed that a considerable number of guardians were women. This discovery, she noted, was unsettling, considering the societal expectations that women should be inherently nurturing, compassionate, and caring. 

Furthermore, the complexities of guardianship extend to encompass the experiences of young female caregivers who are caring for their mothers. These younger female caregivers are often granted power of attorney by their mothers when that mother’s husband dies. However, per Dimond's findings, many judges, under the disguise of prioritizing the well-being of the incapacitated individual, opt to appoint a professional guardian instead. This decision sidelines the daughter from the caregiving process and any complaints raised by the daughter can lead to the guardian restricting her access to her mother or implementing stringent limitations on her involvement.

“This is a profound social burden for women,” Dimond said.  

While guardianship aims to prioritize the well-being of those who lack capacity, Dimond cautions about the potential influence of individuals with a thirst for power, who exploit the system.

“Once you get into the legal system, it can grab your throat,” Dimond warns. “It [guardianship] can also work. It can work if you get a compassionate judge. But I've found too many cases where it wasn’t great, in fact it was downright awful.”

Dimond’s critique of guardianship sheds light on the flaws within its framework. Her extensive, award-winning career as a freelance journalist, author, columnist, and former television correspondent deepens her readerships’ understanding of the intricacies of issues related to crime and justice. 

Editor’s Note: Justice Editorial Assistant Grace Doh contributed to the reporting of this article.