Who does the law favor in Jackson children custody case?
Parental rights count for much, but courts today are giving more credence to claims from a child's primary caregiver.
When retiree Virgil Meyers picked up the phone at 3:30 in the morning, he was not prepared to hear that his youngest daughter had died in her sleep. The shock numbed him but almost at the same time, Mr. Meyers says, "I knew what needed to be done."Skip to next paragraph
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About four hours later, he and his wife returned to their Sacramento, Calif., home with their three grandchildren, ages 16, 14 and 12, in tow, determined to seek legal custody from their jailed father.
Katherine Jackson, mother of superstar Michael Jackson, similarly finds herself in the sudden position of tussling for legal guardianship of her late son's three children. But if Debbie Rowe, mother of two of Michael Jackson's children, decides to seek custody at a twice-rescheduled court hearing set for July 20, what are the chances that a 79-year-old grandmother will win?
Not as slim as might have been the case in the past, say family law experts.
"The biological parent doesn't automatically have a right to custody" in California, says attorney Kathleen Kelly, who helps low- and fixed-income grandparents through the Senior Legal Hotline, the state's largest legal-aid service for the elderly. "But," she adds, "just because Michael Jackson put it in his will doesn't mean Katherine Jackson gets to be their guardian, either."
Grandparents as caregivers
Grandparents, who care for about 70 percent of children not living with their parents, typically step up in emergencies, such as death or incarceration of a parent. Though they are often reluctant to formalize their new role, experts say, the legal system is beginning to grant grandparents who are primary caregivers the opportunity to fight for their charges.
"You can't just walk in to a courtroom and say you want to challenge the parent to custody of their child," says New York attorney Gerard Wallace, director of the state's kinship help and referral center. "Procedural hurdles" – such as proving a parent unfit or that the grandparent is the primary caregiver – "are there to protect parent rights."
Only parents' rights to custody and rearing of their children are constitutionally protected, and those rights were reinforced recently in a 2000 Supreme Court ruling.