The media is full of images of celebs gone wild: Courtney Love (search) baring her breasts to David Letterman; Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston (search) going in and out of court for drug hearings; Michael Jackson (search) dangling his child off a balcony and being arrested on charges of child molestation.
But something gets left out of these dramatic headlines. In all three cases, these wild stars also happen to be parents with young children. So what happens to the kids when their high-profile moms and dads misbehave?
In most instances, the answer is not much.
"There has to be a report of child abuse or neglect for us to open an investigation," said Andrew Roth, spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services (search). "We don’t have the authority to independently launch an investigation."
This means that just because the 6 o’clock news features a mom in handcuffs, social services can’t step in unless there's a report of suspected abuse, which normally comes from doctors, teachers, child care providers and others required to look out for kids in trouble.
But in most cases, the first line of defense is a family member willing to pick up the parenting slack.
"In a case like Whitney and Bobby — mom's in rehab and dad's in prison — in a responsible situation, grandparents or aunts and uncles would step in," said Roth. Singers Houston and Brown have one daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 11, who at last report was being looked after by Whitney's mother Cissy.
Roth said if her parents' tabloid exploits were putting Bobbi Kristina at risk, adults in her life would be obligated to alert social services.
"Say a teacher notices she's lost weight or is dirty — the teacher would make a call," said Roth, describing a hypothetical situation.
Of course, an eccentric parent isn’t necessarily dangerous. And people with drug and alcohol problems aren’t always unfit parents, child experts say.
"There are parents who are doing a reasonable job who are oxycontin (search) dependent, and parents doing a terrible job who are drug-free," said Stuart J. Goldman, senior associate in psychiatry at Children's Hospital in Boston, Mass.
But are celebrities — and their children — treated differently than most Americans?
There are examples of families of privilege being more likely to avoid a social services investigation than poor families, Goldman said. "DSS (the Department of Social Services) might be less likely to get involved in a case that could be a political maelstrom."
Gloria Allred (search), the attorney trying to have Jackson’s three young children temporarily removed from his custody, said the King of Pop has benefited from special treatment.
"In the juvenile court, it appears they are giving the velvet-glove treatment to Michael Jackson. Children are removed every day on a lot less than what Michael Jackson is charged with," she said.
Jackson is accused of seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts. On March 18, Los Angeles officials turned down Allred's request that his children be removed from his custody. Allred is appealing the decision.
But some stars do feel the long arm of the law. In 2002, comedian Paula Poundstone (search) temporarily lost custody of her adopted children after she drove drunk with them in the car.
In the case of Love, she's in the middle of a drug case, and temporarily lost custody of her 11-year-old daughter Frances Bean as a result of a custody battle with her mother-in-law. At the moment, Love’s stepfather, Frank Rodriguez, is looking after the little girl and Love has visitation rights, according to the latest reports. Her lawyer did not return calls.
Love, Jackson and Houston and Brown have all made public statements about their commitment to their children — and there is no public evidence that their children are in danger. (Court documents in child custody cases are all confidential.)
Still, emotional wellness is also a factor to consider, said Goldman.
"Kids who are being emotionally abused are reported, but it’s hard to discover," he said.
Goldman said a chaotic environment and having parents who sporadically leave home can negatively affect kids.
"Both psychological wellness and illness [are] a product of both experience and genetics....A child slightly prone toward depression who is in a negative environment is more likely to develop that illness than one who has a positive environment," he said.
But that can be offset by stable child care, he added.
"Kids don't necessarily just need nurturance from a biological people. With little kids, stability of a great nanny would counter-balance a lot of the [chaos in a home]," Goldman said.
In an era where images of celebrities acting out are regularly in the news, what kind of misbehavior could prompt a public outcry big enough for social services to step in on a child’s behalf?
Jackson’s infamous child dangling incident might have reached that level — if it had occurred on American soil rather than German, said Roth.
"It would be a case of a celebrity doing something everyone could see on the news. It would have raised the issue of ‘Do you make a call because it's on the news,’" he said.
But Roth said similar incidents could challenge child services procedure.
"Because of increasing influence of the Internet and the media, maybe the laws around this will evolve and change," he said.
Publicity of stars gone bad could cause outrage among Americans who are becoming less tolerant of celebrities' antics, according to Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
"In many examples the celebrity pedestal is being knocked down a block or two on a yearly basis," he said.
And Felling added while the public has a voracious appetite for salacious news about the Hollywood elite, the consequences of their wild lives can be more serious than just a failed album or a ruined movie deal.
"It's not just a punch line. There are lives and futures at risk," he said. "Not of the stars but of the children."