Alabama advocates offer alternatives to guardianship | State News



TUSCALOOSA, Alabama (AP) – Colby Spangler, 22, may not seem like much in common with singer Britney Spears.

The young Shelby County man played music in his high school band, but is now focusing on wildlife studies thanks to a program offered by the University of Alabama for students with developmental disabilities. Spangler, who is in his final year of study, works part-time, belongs to a fraternity and lives in an apartment.

But his mother, Kim Spangler, said her son was in “the pipeline from school to guardianship” until he entered high school. Many well-meaning people involved in special education advised him to apply for guardianship at the age of 19 so that he could continue to receive services.

“The schools will tell you as soon as they turn 19 you have to become their tutor,” said Kim Spangler. “So we just sort of believed that. The more we researched, the more we realized that it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Instead of entering a guardianship, like the one Spears had recently dissolved, Spangler and his family have opted for an alternative that gives him more control. This is called assisted decision making, and the system surrounds him with the support of his friends and family.

Spangler’s decision-making team consists of several people who can offer advice on everything from social life to finances. Kim Spangler said it took about a year and a half to build her son’s team. It has nine people who each cover specific areas such as independent living, security and spiritual growth. They can advise and help guide Spangler, but ultimately he’s the one who makes the decisions.

Courts can grant guardianship to a family member or professional if an expert determines that a person cannot make rational decisions. Some people need guardians, said James Tucker, director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

But the system also deprives people of their rights and independence. The Britney Spears case and the trusteeship case of Golden Flake heiress Joann Bashinksy, Alabama, have also raised questions as to whether a legal framework designed for protection can be used to exploit individuals, including of the elderly and disabled. The flaw in Alabama has been that courts grant full guardianship in cases like Spangler’s, when a more limited arrangement might be better, Tucker said.

“The nice thing about this supportive decision making is that the child is a young adult learning to live independently like other young adults,” Tucker said.

Several states have passed laws recognizing assisted decision making as an alternative to guardianship, but Alabama has not.

Kim Spangler wants other adults to know that supported decision making can work for families and people with disabilities. Had she become her son’s guardian when she was 19, Spangler probably wouldn’t have been able to attend the University of Alabama and thrive in a way she never imagined.

“I know COVID has happened and has ruined everything, but my adult life is really easy right now,” Spangler said.

One day, Spangler told his mother he wanted to join a fraternity. He became involved with Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity known as BYX. He recently traveled with them to Six Flags in Georgia.

“I went online and found some fraternities and looked for one that I would like to join,” Spangler said.

It caught her mother off guard. Kim Spangler said learning to let go and trust her son has been difficult but rewarding.

“Colby has met or exceeded each of the challenges and has kind of demonstrated his ability to us,” said Spangler. “We think he is ready for a more independent life and we think he will do very well.”

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