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Gabriel Bouys-Pool/Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys-Pool/Getty Images

The further postponement of the child custody hearing for the children of the late Michael Jackson is evidence that lawyers for both Debbie Rowe and Katherine Jackson are keenly aware that neither woman is perfectly positioned to withstand the scrutiny of a child custody hearing. But Katherine Jackson has a considerably stronger case for custody of her grandchildren than Debbie Rowe.

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Keeping up with Rowe’s latest statements regarding Michael Jackson’s children is a full-time job. One day she plans to fight for them, another she’s not interested in the Jackson brood. Notice that I refer to them as Jackson’s children. Media accounts have lately been referring to the children as Rowe’s children and to Rowe as the “mother” of Paris and Prince. While it’s alleged that Rowe is the biological mother of the two eldest Jackson children (and I’d still demand DNA tests if I were Katherine Jackson’s lawyer), Michael Jackson had exclusive custody under California law. This means that Rowe had, and still has, no legal rights to those children. The fact that Jackson is dead doesn’t change that.

By all accounts, Rowe has never had any relationship with the children. It’s unclear, at this point, if the children even know that Rowe is their mother. Reports are that the children grew up believing that they didn’t have a mother (these things were possible in Michael’s world).

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Nevertheless, like every other state, California follows a “best interest of the child” standard for contested child custody cases. This means that considering all of the circumstances, the court will determine what is best for the Jackson children. Rowe’s biological connection to the children is just one factor to be considered, and given the fact that she has never lived with them or been a mother to them, it is a very weak factor. The fact that she has gone back and forth over the years—reportedly relinquishing her parental rights and then seeking to reinstate them even when Jackson was alive—is perhaps the strongest point against her.

California courts will also give due weight in its analysis to the wishes of the children. It’s hard to imagine Paris, Prince Michael and Blanket, who we saw nestled comfortably with the Jackson family at the memorial service for their father, expressing an interest in living with a woman who’s a virtual and perhaps absolute stranger.

Frankly, Michael’s revelations about what a dark and threatening figure Joe was in his own life cannot be considered irrelevant to a court determining whether the children should be placed under the care of his wife. If Katherine Jackson was unable to keep Joseph from threatening and intimidating her sons and daughters, a rational court could conclude that a considerably old and frail Katherine is not likely to be in a position to protect Paris, Prince and Blanket from Joe’s mercenary schemes.

Enter Janet Jackson. Anyone who saw the memorial service could see that Aunt Janet was a solid and stabilizing force for Michael’s children. In the best black mother tradition, she gave Paris “the look” when the young girl fussed too much on stage with her purse. And it was Paris’ simple words at the end of the service that fully restored Michael Jackson in the eyes of much of the public. Although Katherine tried to comfort the young girl after her tearful remarks, it was to Janet that Paris turned for comfort.

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How can Janet intervene in a process in which she’s not a party? While she cannot technically intervene in the custody hearing—unless she chooses to petition for custody herself—she can work with Katherine to make a presentation to the court that assures the court of Janet’s active and unequivocal plan to be a supportive caregiver. If Janet were to file an affidavit at the hearing stating her intention to move in with Katherine to assist with the care of the children, it would significantly help Katherine’s chances of maintaining custody. Such a plan would have several things going for it, all of which are important under California child custody law. It would permit the court to honor the wishes of the children’s father that Katherine Jackson be awarded custody. It would also enable all of the siblings to stay together (another hitch in the Rowe custody plan, as she is alleged to be the biological mother of only two of the children). 

There would be no disruption of the current arrangement of care for the children, and it would maintain the children’s bond with their grandmother, with whom they ostensibly had a relationship before Michael’s death. It’s also likely that the children’s desire to remain with Katherine would be strengthened by the presence of their young, stable aunt. Finally, Janet looks as though she’s well, willing and able to protect the children from her father’s interference.

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It’s hard to say what will happen at the custody hearing for the Jackson children, but it’s highly unlikely that Rowe will be granted custody. In fact, the court may well determine that it’s not in the best interest of the children for Rowe to even have visitation rights, considering her on-again, off-again interest in being part of the children’s lives. 

The more likely scenario is that Rowe and her lawyer are working behind the scenes in advance of the hearing to wrest some assurances from Katherine Jackson about the care of the children (including a promise that Joe will be kept away from them). Rowe’s power is strongest now, behind the scenes, when her bargaining chip is the promise to drop out of the picture. Given her checkered history, Rowe is unlikely to want to go up against the entire Jackson family led by their formidable attorney, Londell McMillan, in a custody fight. I’m betting she’ll attend the hearing and ultimately give her endorsement of Katherine Jackson as sole, physical custodian of the children.

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This hearing will really be an opportunity for the court to compel Katherine to offer assurances that she can and will provide appropriate care for her son’s children. To do that, Janet may have to step up.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.

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