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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.

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But states increasingly are recognizing a child's primary caregiver as a legitimate challenger to parental rights.

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"The trend is toward more protection for children, less for parents, and more opportunity for caregivers to intervene," says Mr. Wallace.

In California, for example, parents do not have to be found unfit – a difficult thing to prove, family law experts say – before a judge can decide custody on the basis of the best interest of the child.

Wide judicial discretion

Judges in cases like the Jacksons', in which children are not wards of the state, "have very wide discretion to weigh a variety of factors," says Scott Trowbridge, an attorney with the American Bar Association's Center on Children in the Law.

Mrs. Jackson's age – a year shy of the average life expectancy for an American woman – could tip the scales in Ms. Rowe's favor.

"Unless that was the only resort, I'd recommend against adopting or raising a child at that age," says Mr. Meyers, whose first custody hearing since his daughter's death in January is slated for later this month. He worries that the children might have to grieve again, in a very short period of time.

The main factor that courts consider, says Ms. Kelly, is who has cared for and developed a bond with the children. If Michael Jackson's siblings will be close at hand to help raise his kids, that may influence a judge's decision. Most important, a judge will strive to keep the children together, she says.

The mother of Jackson's youngest child, Prince Michael II, also known as Blanket, has never been revealed. Rowe, who secured visitation rights in 2006, had previously given up her parental rights – a move that could diminish any present claim in the eyes of the court. Her lawyer said Tuesday that she would not relinquish her parental right and that she and the Jackson family had not reached an agreement on custody or visitation, according to Associated Press.

"Hopefully, they can work out some mutual agreement if Ms. Rowe did in fact have a relationship with the children," says Jacqueline Garman, a social worker at the Florida Kinship Center who specialized in adoption. "The kids are dealing with a number of losses right now."

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