As Britney Spears and Kevin Federline continue to battle it out in court, what impact could the singer's hospitalization Thursday have on her custody case? Could Britney be in danger of losing all rights to spend time with her young children? Of being declared an unfit mother? While legal experts say nothing is certain, they also say this latest development definitely isn't good for the pop star.
"It's awful," said family law attorney Joshua Forman of the New York firm Chemtob Moss Forman & Talbert. "Her being taken out of her home on a stretcher, with media reports suggesting she was drugged or intoxicated, you can't get much worse than that."
Regardless of whether she was intoxicated, Spears apparently was refusing to hand over Sean Preston and Jayden James to Federline when her allotted visitation ended. "Whatever happened last night, she was definitely violating the court order," said family law attorney Lois Liberman of the New York firm Blank Rome. "That in and of itself is enough."
"It's slapping the judge in the face," Forman said. "She's saying, 'I don't care what you said, I'm doing what I want.' And now the whole world knows, and no judge likes that. It's destroyed any case she has in front of this judge."
And if the singer actually ingested an illegal substance, as some reports say, that would be violating yet another court order — not to be intoxicated in the presence of her children, since both she and Federline were ordered to abstain from alcohol and nonprescription medication during and for 12 hours immediately preceding any period either has custody of the children.
"It all depends on what really happened last night," Liberman said. "If she tried to kill herself, the court could decide she doesn't get to see the kids at all because she showed poor judgment and could be a danger to them. If she just took a swig and was screaming and yelling, she's just out of control, and they could say she has to go [to the hospital] before she could see the kids."
If, however, the reason for her hospitalization turns out to be something more innocuous, the court is likely to be more understanding, Forman noted. "Of course, if it turns out you were smoking pot, you can't say you didn't know what you were doing," he added. "The court has already given her a lot of rope, and she's hanging herself with it."
"She has probably been given way more chances than the average person in her situation," Liberman said. "The average person with no money and legal aid attorneys who's having to deal with child and family services? This is way more leeway. It's just very sad, because you're watching somebody self-destruct."
Spears has already flouted several court orders in the case — from not responding to calls for her random drug tests to, most recently, not showing up to her deposition on Wednesday, only to show up late for it on Thursday — making this latest possible violation worse than if it were an isolated incident. "If I were her lawyer, I'd be telling her to do exactly what the judge has told her to do," Forman said. "Go to rehab; don't do drugs; get help; get counseling, with Kevin and by herself; show up to depositions on time; show up to court on time; listen to what the court has said. If she does that, maybe the court will see that she's seen the light and wants to be with these children, because she does not seem to want to be with these kids when she's not following the rules."
Should Spears choose to do so, she could continue to fight any custody arrangement the judge might decide. "Remember, all these arrangements were supposed to be temporary," Liberman said. "The period of being temporary was extended because she wasn't complying with court orders."
But it could drag out even longer, even if full custody is ultimately given to Federline. "This can realistically go on until the youngest child is 18," Forman said. "It can go on until child support ends." The cost of that, however, could go into the millions, he estimated. "If that's how she chooses to spend her money, no court can stop her," he said. "But there will come a point where the court will get sick of it." That means she might have to pay Federline's lawyer fees if the battle continues to drag out, and it might make it harder for her to retain counsel (and she's already gone through three law firms on this matter as it is). "It hurts her case, it hurts her reputation in the eyes of the court, if her attorneys say they don't want to work with her," Forman said. " 'What, you're on your 10th lawyer now?' It certainly doesn't show stability."
In the short term, however, the court is unlikely to take all custody away at this point, Forman said, because that's a lengthier process that would require more hearings and drug tests. But in the interim, he said, expect Commissioner Scott Gordon to "severely" restrict her visitations and require more supervision for the next weeks or months.
"The next step would be probably allowing her supervised visits at another site, not at her home," Liberman said. "They have supervised agencies where the parent can go see the child, so the parent doesn't have physical custody and they're asked to leave at the end of the visit. That is not as horrendous as losing your rights to visitation entirely. So they'll reduce the visits, or make her go to a facility, or terminate the visits completely until the next hearing."
"The court isn't going to say outright, 'She's an unfit mother,' " Forman said. "You'll be able to draw your own conclusion by how much time she gets with the children."