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What ‘Free Britney’ shares with ‘Justice for Jenny’

Jenny Hatch stands outside the Newport News Circuit Court building in 2013. (Steven Turville for The Washington Post)
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Eight years ago this month, before Jenny Hatch won her freedom in court, her attorney Jonathan Martinis talked to me about his ultimate hopes for her case.

He hoped she would be the “rock that starts the avalanche.”

He hoped she would change the national conversation about guardianship.

He hoped she would push people to focus on what individuals can do, instead of what they can’t.

“If I go to a mechanic, no one assumes I can’t drive,” he told me at the time. “Where you and I would be called wise for getting help, when a person with a disability needs help, it’s just assumed they’re incapable of doing anything.”

In other words, if they struggle to do one thing, they are seen as needing help with everything.

I have been thinking a lot lately about Hatch’s case, not only because Aug. 2 will mark the anniversary of her court victory, but also because Britney Spears’s contentious conservatorship has brought national attention to a subject not many knew about when Hatch sat in court fighting for her freedom. I admittedly didn't know much about it until I ended up covering her case.

Virginia woman with Down syndrome seeks power to live the way she wants

On Wednesday afternoon, the D.C.-based group Free Britney America gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a rally. They were there to issue a familiar call — “Free Britney” — and do more than that. The group, according to its website, aims to get federal lawmakers to hold a hearing to examine and make changes to the issues surrounding legal guardianship, which is known as conservatorship in some states.

It would be easy to dismiss the gathering as a fandom fest for a pop artist. But a look at what has happened since people called for “Justice for Jenny” shows just how much progress has been made when it comes to guardianship, and how much more is needed.

“Bring My Freedom of Choice Back,” Hatch wrote on a poster board in 2013.

At the time, the then-29-year-old with Down syndrome was under the temporary guardianship of her parents, living in a group home against her will and unsure whether a judge would decide to grant her parents permanent guardianship or allow her to choose how she wanted to live. She had expressed, repeatedly, what that looked like: Her moving in with friends who could offer help when she needed it, but not decide everything for her.

She needed support when it came to making some decisions, not to lose her right to make any, she and her attorneys argued at the time.

When the judge ruled in her favor, she became the first person to win the legal right to choose where and how to live using supported decision-making. “Free at last!” she declared that day. Her victory showed there was a middle ground between guardianship and no guardianship. A network of people could be put in place to help a person in the areas of their life where they needed guidance.

“The fact that we’re even having conversations about alternatives to guardianship is because of her,” Martinis said on a recent evening. Since working on her case, he has handled other court fights, written a book and given talks across the country about supported decision-making. “There is so much that has resulted directly from her.”

Since her court victory, the country has seen this happen: Twelve states and D.C. have put in place laws recognizing supported decision-making as a preferred alternative to guardianship. More legal wins have occurred, including one for an 87-year-old woman in D.C. whose case was handled by the Jenny Hatch Justice Project. And school systems that once, as a matter of practice, advised parents to get guardianship for certain students now have policies that call for laying out all options. D.C.’s public school system created the nation’s first such policy.

We also now know more about what it does to a person to have no say in how they live.

January saw the release of a report that detailed a pilot project in Virginia that studied how supported decision-making impacted the lives of 10 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their parents or caretakers. The families were chosen by the Arc of Northern Virginia, which led the study along with the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.

Participants created plans showing how they wanted to be supported and by whom, and then put them into practice. At the end of the project, they were asked a series of questions.

When asked if working with the pilot project and making their own decisions made their life better in any way, the replies included:

“Yes, I have more hope.”

“I think it just shows that I’m capable of more than I think I am.”

“I’m happy now and I love my life.”

They spoke of having better relationships with their families and friends — “It feels more like two adults communicating” — and their parents and caretakers told of seeing them have more confidence, pride and ability.

“She just beams when she makes a good decision,” one said.

“It made me realize that I should relinquish my hold on his future, and its okay for me to do that,” said another.

But the report also pointed to how overbroad and undue guardianships are increasing, and how there remains a lack of knowledge about alternatives.

“Free Britney” is not only about freeing Britney Spears, just as “Justice for Jenny” was not only about getting justice for Jenny Hatch. Any of us can end up, through age or circumstance, deemed not able to make our own decisions. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: What protections do we want in place if that should happen?

“I hope this leads to conversations of how we can ensure that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — not whether some people should,” Martinis said.

What to know about Britney Spears’s court battle over her conservatorship

Hatch and Spears are both in their 30s and blond. What they also share, Martinis said, is that they lost the power to make their own decisions after their worst days. Hatch ended up under guardianship after she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle. Spears ended up under conservatorship — one that prevents her from having access to her money and getting her IUD removed — after a public breakdown.

“If you were to ask the average person, ‘What if their worst day was used to take their rights way?’ they’d flip out,” Martinis said. “They’d say what we’d all say, ‘I made a mistake.’”

I have spoken to Hatch over the years and when we last talked, she had her own cellphone and described herself as “so happy.” She told me, “I don’t know what I would do without my friends. I’m happy that I won my case.”

We should all be. She, no doubt, started that avalanche.

Now, hopefully, Spears makes it spread even further.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Neli Latson is — finally — free. It only took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about race and disability.

She’s endured stares and insults. Her dream: To create a community space where others won’t.

Nikole Hannah-Jones hasn’t started teaching at Howard yet. But already, she’s imparting lessons.