Britney Spears and the Right to Reproductive Justice: Regulation and Conservatorship in the Child Welfare System

After the outrage surrounding Britney Spears’s conservatorship, activists have seized the opportunity to draw attention to the daily struggles faced by many trapped in the “child welfare” system—or, as advocates rightly dub it, the family regulation system.

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Black and Native families are more likely to be reported to child protective services, to have their cases substantiated and to have their children removed and placed into foster care. (yesy belajar memotrek / Flickr)

In the last few months, the world has become re-obsessed with Britney Spears and the conservatorship that has controlled her life for the last 13 years. We felt collective outrage when we learned her father, as conservator, forced her to have an intrauterine device (or IUD) in her body to prevent her from having more children, even though that was her wish. We were stunned and horrified at the recent revelation that her father monitored her phone and installed an audio-listening device in her bedroom. Without a doubt, we should be incensed the law allowed a woman who was competent enough to manage a million-dollar residency in Vegas, to be subjected to this level of surveillance and control.

As we express our rage the law allowed this to go on for so many years, we should take the opportunity to question any and all legal regimes that sanction control over another person. One in particular you may not be familiar with is the child welfare system. It’s Jamie Spears on steroids. 

Twenty years ago, in her groundbreaking book, Shattered Bonds, Professor Dorothy Roberts wrote:

“If you came with no preconceptions about the child welfare system’s purpose, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed primarily to monitor, regulate and punish poor black families.” 

Two decades later, the “child welfare” system—or, as advocates now rightly dub it, the family regulation system—continues to surveil and control primarily Black and Brown parents. The state questions every parenting decision they make and in too many cases, removes their children, preventing parents from exercising their constitutional right to parent and denying children their constitutional right to be with their parents if they choose. 


The state questions every parenting decision they make. Surveillance is inherent—constantly under the watchful eye of others who can anonymously report suspected child abuse with few facts, no understanding of what legally constitutes neglect, or simply out of malice.


Surveillance is inherent if you live in poverty in the United States and that is not limited to family regulation issues. This is true if you live in low-income housing, take public transportation, send your children to schools, get medical care at an emergency room or happen to live in what police have conveniently dubbed a “high-crime” neighborhood. 

You are constantly under the watchful eye of others who can anonymously report suspected child abuse with few facts, no understanding of what legally constitutes neglect or in some cases, simply out of malice. Even worse, you are in constant contact with mandated reporters who, even if they do not wish ill on your family, face the loss of their professional licenses and even criminal penalties if they fail to report suspected abuse and neglect. Unsurprisingly, this leads to overreporting, which leads to unnecessary family separations. 

If you are disabled or a minority, this effect is compounded due to bias at every stage of the system. For example, parents with disabilities are more likely to have their children removed by the family regulation system.

Parents with a psychiatric disability are 70 to 80 percent more likely to have their children removed and 40 to 80 percent more likely if they have an intellectual disability. Disabled parents are also more likely to have their rights to their children terminated


Parents with a psychiatric disability are 70 to 80 percent more likely to have their children removed and 40 to 80 percent more likely if they have an intellectual disability.


Black and Native families are more likely to be reported to child protective services, to have their cases substantiated and to have their children removed and placed into foster care. If you’re Black, sometimes even fame isn’t enough to prevent child welfare intervention. Just ask Syesha Mercado. 

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A January 2020 abortion rally in D.C. (Hillel Steinberg / Flickr)

And while people may not think of “child welfare” as a reproductive justice issue in the same way forcing someone to use contraception against their will might be, reproductive justice encompasses not only the right to decide whether or not to have children, but also the right to raise that child.

The family regulation system therefore impacts women’s reproductive autonomy every day. It prevents parents from making decisions about their children because, once you have made contact with the system, you can remain entangled in that system for years. Many choose not to have more children for fear they will immediately be taken into foster care. Just like conservatorship, it is an invisible but looming threat over reproductive decision-making in the guise of child protection. 

Disability rights advocates rightly seized upon the #FreeBritney conversation to bring awareness to people who aren’t celebrities, but struggle the same way she does. But anyone who cares about families and family integrity should be having the same conversation.

As a family law professor and a lawyer who used to represent indigent parents accused of abuse and neglect, I can tell you this is larger than one woman—it is about the millions of parents who are under relentless state surveillance and whose decision-making is dissected by the state because they are disabled, they are poor or they are minorities.

#FreeThemAll.

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About

Shanta Trivedi is an assistant professor of law and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She previously represented parents in Brooklyn who are embroiled in the child welfare system and as a result of that experience writes about state-sanctioned family separation focusing on issues related to race, poverty and gender.