Who's Best for the Kids?
Their doting grandmother is almost 80. Their biological mother has sold them twice. Their allegedly abusive grandfather wants to take them on tour. Will the legal system protect Michael Jackson’s children? From Joe to Katherine to Janet to Diana, The Daily Beast’s Marcia Clark renders verdicts on the custody contenders.
At 79 years of age, actuarial tables say a woman is likely to live another 9.74 years. Which means if Katherine Jackson gets custody of her late son Michael’s children, Blanket is likely to lose his primary caregiver—again—by the time he hits his teens. Apart from statistics, common sense dictates that an octogenarian will be very challenged to raise three children between the ages of seven and twelve.
And what about the children, who’ve lived a strange life already, under veils, behind closed doors, often on the road, and under the care of a father who was reportedly addicted to prescription drugs—don’t they deserve some stability now? What will the legal system do for these children?
Rowe claims she’s not asking for more money, she’s only asking for the payoff she was originally promised but never got. Oh, I get it. Since she’s only asking for the original selling price that makes her June Cleaver.
First, know that in California, custody is determined based on the “best interests of the children.” That means custody of Michael Jackson’s children will go to the person who’s had the most ongoing involvement with their upbringing and who’s most capable of giving them a nurturing, stable environment. Figuring out who that person is—especially where you have multiple potential caregivers—is no easy thing.
According to veteran California lawyer Peggy Garrity, who’s handled her share of high-profile custody cases, “The first thing the court should do is appoint a lawyer to represent those children. Right now, all the lawyers are representing the potential contenders for custody—they’re going to fight for their clients, not the kids.”
What about the kids, do they get a say? “You bet. By the time kids are ten and twelve years old, they get to say where they want to go and the courts have to take that into account. If the kids come up with a choice that makes sense, that’ll carry a lot of weight with the court. And that will determine where Blanket, the youngest one, goes because the courts won’t split them up,” Garrity says.
Still, the choices aren’t limitless, and the kids couldn’t and certainly wouldn’t just pick a name out of a hat. Although possible contenders for custody have been discussed, none of the reports explain how any of them would actually fare in court. Below is a rundown of what the courts would see in each of the possible caregivers and who’s likely to wind up with custody. Here’s a hint: blood ties aren’t everything.
Katherine Jackson: the first choice, not because she was listed in the will, but because she’s been closely involved with the children since birth. FYI, custody isn’t determined by what anyone puts in their will. Kids aren’t silverware. Katherine’s been involved with the children since birth, and there’s no question of her devotion to them. Will or no will, she’d be first in line anyway.
But she has some downsides, too. Age has its limitations and no one’s in doubt about the fact that she’ll need plenty of help with these kids. Especially when they hit their teen years—she’ll need the emotional stamina to deal with what I called the “Three R’s” of teenhood: rebelliousness, recklessness, and righteousness. It’s disaster soup, and it would be hard to handle for a woman in her 50s, let alone one in her 80s.
A more-problematic downside is her connection to husband Joe Jackson. That he abused his children has never seriously been contested, and if there was ever any doubt about his character, his recent conduct surely wiped it out. From hawking his own recording company at his son’s funeral, to his reported touring schemes for three grieving children who’d just lost their father, there hasn’t been a way to avoid seeing what a poor excuse for a father he was. As Garrity points out, “Any lawyer who wants to oppose her will say ‘She couldn’t stop him from abusing his own kids, and she’s still married to him. So how do we know she’ll keep these kids safe from him now?’ ”
Whoever gets custody, Garrity advises, “Make it a condition of custody that Joe Jackson has to be kept away.”
Now here’s an interesting upside: she’ll probably be able to tell the court she’ll have the help of the nanny, Grace Rwaramba, who’s been with Michael since 1991, and was Prince Michael’s nanny since 1999. True, at one point Michael fired her—The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner reports because she pushed the singer to get off the pills—but she’s back and apparently as close to the kids as ever.
The only problem with Grace is that she poses as big a minus for Katherine as a plus, as explained below. Katharine Jackson Verdict: The favorite.
Grace Rwaramba: the nanny is in a much stronger contender than most people realize. The fact that she isn’t a blood relative isn’t determinative. “What the courts care about is who the mother figure really is, the de facto mom.” As the nanny who’s been through thick and thin with the children since birth (with a few breaks due to breakdowns in her relationship with Michael), Rwaramba has been a real through-line of stability in the largely unstable life they’ve led so far. “I’ve been told the Jackson children call Grace Rwaramba ‘mom.’ If that’s true, that’s the kind of thing that could really sway a court,” says Garrity. “And by the way, I’ve also heard Michael’s kids are really terrific, nice kids. That’ll tell the court that whoever’s been doing the day-to-day caregiving has been doing one heck of a good job.”
So if that person is Grace—and it very well might be—she’d make a good impression in court. “Katherine’s the frontrunner, no question, but Grace Rwaramba is a close second. If she files a petition for guardianship, all bets are off,” Garrity says.
Then how come Grace hasn’t filed her own petition for custody yet? “I’m not saying she won’t, but she and Katherine might have an agreement on the side: Grace backs Katherine instead of filing her own petition for now, and she takes over at some future point,” Garrity speculates. Grace Rwaramba Verdict: a strong contender—don’t count her out. She might lose to Katherine—barely. But she’d win against almost anybody else.
Debbie Rowe: why her hat is still in the ring is a mystery. She’s no one’s choice—including her own. She sold the kids to Michael at least twice and she’s currently sparring with the New York Post about their reports she just sold them a third time. And she’s shown she’s not fit to raise a water bug.
Nevertheless, she continues to press her claim to the children she said were Michael’s—not hers. According to her attorney: “Ms. Rowe has not and will not give up her parental rights.”
The latest go-round in this ugly circus is that New York Post claim—hotly denied by Rowe’s attorney—that she just demanded another four million to go away…again. She claims she’s not asking for more money, she’s only asking for the payoff she was originally promised but never got. Oh, I get it. Since she’s only asking for the original selling price that makes her June Cleaver. Whatever.
Does she stand a chance? “Not a prayer,” says Garrity. “I don’t care what she thinks he owed her, she sold the kids. Period. Now go away. At this point, I don’t care who else is asking for the kids, if it’s the dogcatcher, the dogcatcher wins.”
From a purely legal standpoint, the mere fact that Rowe’s been able to shake Michael down the way she has is remarkable. According to Garrity, “What the lawyers should have done long ago is get her to sign off on a termination of her parental rights—a legal document that formally ends any parental connection she has to the children. It’s a very basic thing—everybody signs, it gets filed with the court, it’s over.” That would’ve stopped Rowe from bleeding Jackson for money at every bend and turn.
Rowe supposedly agreed to a termination of parental rights, but it was “overturned.” Why it wasn’t revisited and finally concluded has never been explained. Forget the doctors who push pills like Pez Dispensers, Jackson might have had worse professional help among his legal team. How could they have not filed the simplest of protective orders?
Does the failure to get the termination of parental rights mean she stands a chance to get custody now? “Absolutely not. Every time Rowe hits them up for money, she gets farther away from being a real contender,” says Garrity.
At this point, there are probably aliens from the planet Nebulous four galaxies away that have a better shot at custody than Debbie Rowe. Debbie Rowe Verdict: I don’t care what her lawyer says—stick a fork in her, she’s done.
Joe Jackson: Michael’s dad isn’t even asking for custody, but he would in theory have a lot of standing should his wife get custody and then pass on. But don’t hold your breath. “I’d think that anyone who’d even let him see the kids would lose custody,” Garrity observed. “There’s no way he gets custody. No way.” Joe Jackson Verdict: No way.
Janet Jackson: The Katherine Jackson/Grace Rwaramba combination is probably an unbeatable one, but the name of another family member has just been floated, and it’s an interesting possibility.
If you’ve been wondering how come none of the siblings have been heard from, wonder no more. Janet Jackson has reportedly shown an interest in assuming custody of the children. She’s a great talent, and has probably had a good relationship with the children, but at this point, there isn’t much of a track record.
“I’ve been predicting that one of the siblings would step up, so this doesn’t surprise me,” says Garrity. “And I’m glad she did. It makes sense—she’s family, she’s young enough to handle the job, but as far as I know, she’s never acted as a primary caregiver, so she’s going to take a back seat to someone who has.”
So if something happened to Katherine Jackson, Grace could beat out Janet for custody? “Very likely,” Garrity says. Janet Jackson Verdict: Unlikely.
Diana Ross: The sentimental choice, someone who’s been close to Michael and probably loves the kids. He named her as backup in his will and she’s said she’d be there for them if needed. But she never was a full time caregiver, so as a practical matter, she’ll make a great Auntie Diana, and that’s about it: “I don’t see the court seriously considering her as a custodial caregiver, she doesn’t have that kind of history with them, though it’s great that she’s going to stay in their lives. The more love, the better,” Garrity says. Diana Ross Verdict: this time she sings backup.
As of this writing, Katherine Jackson and Debbie Rowe have agreed to a second postponement of the guardianship proceedings and are attempting to reach an out-of-court settlement. Out of court is usually in the best interests of everyone when it comes to custody battles, but this one time may be the exception. Only the abusive grandfather is less qualified to raise Michael’s children than Rowe. One can only hope that Katherine Jackson gets custody and finds a way to finally make Rowe and Joe go away and stay away. For the children’s sake.
Marcia Clark, the former L.A. district attorney who prosecuted the O.J. Simpson murder case, has since served a regular legal television commentator. She has written a bestselling book, Without a Doubt, served as a columnist for Justice Magazine and is finishing her debut crime novel.