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Taken about a year ago, this photo shows the late Michael Jackson’s three children. From left are Prince Michael, now 12; Paris, 11; and Blanket, 7.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 6/26/2009 3:08:19 PM ET 2009-06-26T19:08:19

They are rarely seen in public, and when they are, it is usually with their faces masked or veiled. It is not clear who their biological father is, but they are Michael Jackson’s legal children. The question facing Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and Prince Michael II (more commonly known as Blanket), 7, now is: Who will raise them to adulthood?

“Michael Jackson has been the only parent these children have known, and now he’s gone,” Galina Espinoza, senior editor of People magazine, told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Friday in New York.

Journalist and author Diane Dimond, who has written extensively about Jackson, told TODAY that for now, the King of Pop’s mother, Katherine Jackson, will care for the three children.

“The kids are very upset, but they are fine,” Michael Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, told People.

Who gets the kids?
But, warned NBC News’ legal analyst Dan Abrams, a custody battle may be on the horizon. The most likely claimant would be Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s second wife and the biological mother of Prince Michael and Paris (Blanket was born of an unidentified surrogate mother in Europe).

According to Rowe’s former attorney, Iris Finsilver, Rowe is the legal parent of Prince Michael and Paris and can gain custody of them if she chooses, People reported.

During a 2005 custody fight with Jackson, Rowe sought to give up her parental rights, and praised Jackson as a good father. Judge Stephen Lachs, who presided over the hearing, at first agreed to terminate Rowe’s rights, but then changed his mind and returned them to her.

“She lost them, and then she got them back,” Finsilver told People. She said she spoke to Rowe on Thursday but does not know what Rowe plans to do. Jackson family attorney Brian Oxman described Rowe as “inconsolable.”

Oxman told People that Katherine Jackson “is the logical choice” to be guardian of the children. “She has all the grandkids and nieces around her,” he said. “But it will be up to the courts. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more proceedings regarding the children.”

Rowe could indeed claim custody in court, Abrams affirmed on TODAY Friday. It is not clear if Jackson left a will that addresses the custody question, but his wishes would not necessarily prevail in court, the legal analyst told Lauer.

“When you’re talking about children, the first question is: What’s in the best interest of those children?” Abrams said. “Now that Michael Jackson has died, she can certainly come back into the picture and say, ‘Wait a second. It is in the best interests of the children to be back with me.’ ”

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Espinoza said that Rowe’s contact with the children has been very limited. The children themselves have been tended by nannies and by their father, who educated them at home. Jackson took them to museums — usually after hours — exposed them to books, and limited their exposure to television. But the children did not have contact with other children.

“He was a very devoted man,” Dimond said, adding that since Jackson’s criminal child-molestation trial in 2005, which ended in his acquittal, the King of Pop took himself out of the public eye and moved out of his Neverland ranch.

“Since the criminal trial, he really devoted himself to his children,” Dimond explained. “He was very big on books. If there was a downside, it was that they weren’t in school. There wasn’t any exposure to other children.”

Devoted dad
There also wasn’t a regular home. One day the children might be in Dubai, the next in Ireland. All were living with their father in Los Angeles at the time of his death.

The one constant in their lives was their father.

“All my sources who were close to the family talk about what a good father he was,” Dimond said. “Michael Jackson said he didn't have a childhood, so he wanted to make up for it by giving these kids a great one. He was doting, he was big on culture and the arts.”

TODAY
Jackson’s children often appeared in public wearing veils or masks.
The few who have met the children describe them as sweet, intelligent and well-behaved. Harriette Cole of Ebony magazine spoke with Morales about meeting Blanket (whose given name is Prince Michael II) when she wrote a major profile of Jackson. Blanket was was then age 5.

“Blanket was the cutest little boy — very sweet, very quiet,” Cole recalled. “He had that little mischievous look in his eye. He was fun. He was normal. He was an average little 5-year-old boy.”

Cole was also struck by the bond between father and son. “You could tell that they were very loving,” she said. “You could tell that there was a loving, respectful relationship. Five-year-olds act up; he didn’t. It wasn’t like a bad control — it was a loving control that a father and son would have together.”

The godfather
Mark Lester is the children’s godfather. He was the child star of the movie “Oliver!” It was Jackson’s favorite movie growing up, and after meeting some 30 years ago, they became fast friends.

Lester told TODAY’s Matt Lauer from London that he had not yet contacted Jackson’s extended family. He said he was ready to do whatever he is called on to do, but said that he expected that the family will embrace the children.

“I would imagine his mother, sisters, brothers would rally around and care for the children,” Lester said. “The Jackson family is a very large family, and in times of need, families get together and put aside differences.”

The children, Lester added, “are the sweetest, happiest kids that you can imagine. They are not as you would perceive children of a superstar. They’re very bright and very dedicated children. They are three of the most adorable, nice children.”

But, Abrams predicted, they are now likely to become pawns in a custody battle.

Family feud?
Jackson has said that his first two children were conceived normally with Rowe, but she has said that they were conceived through artificial insemination with donated sperm. Jackson said his own sperm was used to impregnate Blanket’s surrogate mom, but that has not been independently established.

Debbie Rowe is the mother of two of Michael Jackson’s children, Prince Michael and Paris. Blanket’s mother is unidentified.
Abrams said that if Rowe, who raises horses in California, decides to claim custody, a judge will have to decide whether her rights as a biological parent supersede those of Jackson’s family.

“This is not a battle between a biological parent and a nonbiological parent,” Abrams said. “This is going to be, if Debbie Rowe gets involved, a biological parent versus the family of the caregiver.”

The judge, Abrams said, will have to weigh what’s the best environment for the children against biological kinship. “You ask the question: ‘What environment have they been in? Who’s the person who has been closest to them?’ But biology does matter,” Abrams said.

Although Jackson is said to be $400 million in debt, the kids will not be destitute. Dimond pointed out that he still owns his own music catalog and a share in the Beatles catalog. “There’s money there,” she said.

The question that will probably not be settled for some time is who will raise those children.

“I don't know who gets custody of the kids,” Dimond said. “That’s the biggest and saddest question here. Michael Jackson was their whole life.”

It won’t be easy for children who have been so sheltered.

“The psychological pressure that’s on these children is just tremendous,” Dimond said. “First off, they lost their parent. They haven’t been brought up in a traditional way. They are not like other children. They’re going to be pushed out into the real world now, which they’re totally unaccustomed to.”

This story includes additional reporting from People magazine.

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