Britney Spears has lived her two years of motherhood under the glare of both the media and the government.
There were the tabloid stories when her baby fell out of a highchair and suffered scratches. There were the paparazzi photos showing her driving down Pacific Coast Highway while holding her infant son in her lap rather than securing him in a child car seat, which led to an inquiry by L.A. County officials. More recently, her trips to drug rehab and bouts of bizarre behavior that were caught on tape, including shaving her head, have brought further scrutiny of her parenting skills.
Last month, she was slapped with misdemeanor charges related to a hit and run after she allegedly left the scene of an accident.
On Monday, a Los Angeles County court commissioner had enough.
Commissioner Scott M. Gordon stripped Spears of custody of her two young sons, ordering her to hand the children over to her former husband, Kevin Federline, on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
In an eight-sentence decision, Gordon did not say why he took the action or say how long Spears would be denied custody. But two weeks ago, he said there was evidence that Spears was “a habitual, frequent and continuous” user of drugs and alcohol.
He ordered her to submit to twice-weekly drug and alcohol testing, undergo co-counseling with Federline and receive parent coaching.
The parental coach was ordered to report back to the court later this month, ahead of a Nov. 26 court date.
Gordon’s intervention marks another setback for Spears, who has been struggling to revive her once-hot music career amid the intense glare of the tabloid media spotlight.
Legal experts said the ruling likely reflected the commissioner’s belief that living with Spears posed “immediate harm” to her children.
Alexandra Leichter, a Beverly Hills-based private judge and family law arbitrator, said it was an extraordinary move considering the courts are very reluctant to take children away from either parent without a full hearing.
“The court must have had an extreme set of circumstances to make such a drastic order, especially when it refused to do so in light of the finding that Britney used drugs and alcohol,” Leichter said. “He gave her an extra opportunity two weeks ago that another judicial officer may not have given her, and she apparently blew it.”
Scott Altman, USC law school vice dean, said the decision could be short-lived, saying courts often shift custody arrangements based on the behavior of the parents.
“I suspect Commissioner Gordon has his eye on the children’s immediate welfare,” Altman said. “Certainly this could send a wake-up call to the parent, but I don’t think that is the primary goal of the commissioner. It would be very rare to deny custody to the drug-using parent altogether.”
Spears, 25, filed for divorce from Federline, 29, a year ago after two years of marriage, citing irreconcilable differences.
The couple agreed in February to share custody of their sons.
But Federline returned to court to ask Gordon to revisit the couple’s custody agreement after Spears’ wild partying and bizarre incidents became weekly tabloid fodder.
The oft-photographed pop singer, who got her start on the Mickey Mouse Club, shaved her hair at an Encino salon, was pictured attacking paparazzi with an umbrella and parading in and out of her underwear, and appeared incoherent during a photo shoot for OK! magazine.
She spurned rehabilitation at least twice and made a much-maligned performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas.
At a court hearing last month, her divorce lawyer, Laura Wasser, announced that she had resigned from the case. Within hours, Spears was dropped by her management company as well.
Most recently, she was charged by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office with misdemeanor hit and run and driving without a license when she struck a vehicle in a parking lot in Studio City.
Attorneys for Spears and Federline could not be reached for comment.
Leichter said the law allows judicial officers to make an immediate custody transfer order between parents when children are at risk of imminent harm.
Such risks may include physical or sexual abuse and endangerment, including driving with children while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or failing to provide immediate medical attention in case of a medical emergency.
Last month, Spears was given specific instructions by Gordon not to consume alcohol or other non-prescription drugs during or for the 12 hours before she was caring for the children.
A violation of that order or her brush with the law could have factored into Monday’s ruling, Leichter said.
“But more likely, this court order was triggered by something even more egregious,” Leichter said.