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Can She Get It Together?

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Oct. 1 unfolds like a perfectly typical day—for Britney Spears, anyway. At 11:10 a.m. she bundles her boys Jayden James, 1, and Sean Preston, 2, into the back of her white Mercedes CLK 350 and drives them through a Carl’s Jr. hamburger joint in North Hollywood. At 12:20 she hands the children off to a bodyguard for her ex-husband Kevin Federline at her house in Beverly Hills. Around 2:30 she goes shopping at the Sydney Michelle boutique in Bel Air. “Oh, this is cute! Oh, I like this!” she chirps to salesgirls as she tries on outfit after outfit. Around 3:00 she commences a 10-minute tanning session at the Epitome Salon. “She wasn’t chatty, but she was sweet and she looked cute,” says a fellow salon patron. “She seemed great.”

All perfectly typical—except that by then Spears, 25, had learned she had temporarily lost custody of her kids.

On Oct. 1 a Los Angeles court commissioner ordered that Preston (as he’s called) and Jayden be placed in the custody of Federline, 29, until a further ruling by the court. According to a friend of Federline’s—who is “thrilled and relieved” by the ruling, says a source—Spears ignored orders in a Sept. 17 ruling by Commissioner Scott Gordon, who allowed her to retain 50-50 custody of her children as long as she followed a list of directives, including signing up with a parenting coach, engaging in joint coparenting counseling and submitting to random drug tests. “Basically the commissioner gave her 10 days to get her act together, and she failed,” says the friend. Federline’s lawyer Mark Vincent Kaplan, while not commenting on specifics, says, “No court would make a kind of draconian order simply because a party did not sign up for a parenting class.” But after Gordon gave Spears an opportunity to comply with all of his orders “in a reasonable time frame,” says Kaplan, “I didn’t see any evidence that the opportunity was appreciated or pursued, and the court must have agreed.”

Spears’ lawyer Sorrell Trope told PEOPLE the singer wasn’t able to comply with a court order to show proof of having a valid California driver’s license by 10 a.m. Oct. 1—but that “there are certain things that she has complied with.” (She finally did obtain a license on Oct. 2.) As for allegedly missing a drug test—which courts deem the same as testing positive for drug use—Trope would only say, “There’s no evidence that she actually failed a test.” A source close to Spears says, “Britney is upset with herself for not being as responsible as she could have been, but she’s taking care of all the things she needs to right now. She’s willing to accept this temporary setback because she’s positive things will be going in her favor soon.” Her close friend, businessman Sam Lufti, writes off the whole mess as a simple clerical snafu. “Scheduling conflicts and errors in communication led Britney to believe that her deadline was later,” Lufti told PEOPLE. “Britney’s in a good mood, no problems, very optimistic. Everything’s looking good.”

But is it, really? How could Spears have allowed things to get this far? Stuck in a celebrity fishbowl and aware her every parenting decision will be dissected in the press, how could she not realize what seems clear to the rest of the world—that her life is spinning dangerously out of control? “I don’t think she ever believed something like losing her children could possibly happen,” says a family friend. “She’s used to getting her way because people do what she says. She adores those boys and this is a devastating moment for her.”

Others believe it was inevitable. Since filing for divorce from Federline last Nov. 7, Britney has admittedly acted “like a bad kid running around with ADD,” as she put it in an open letter to her fans May 29. On Aug. 8, Federline’s camp presented Commissioner Gordon with a 1 1/2-in. thick file on Spears’ erratic behavior. Then her former bodyguard Tony Barretto came forward, saying he’d witnessed Spears’ drug use and irresponsible parenting. All of this presumably prompted Commissioner Gordon to impose the Sept. 17 orders and to find that “there is frequent and continuous use of controlled substances and alcohol” by [Spears]. Incredibly, Spears almost immediately seemed to defy one key order—not to drink any alcohol within 12 hours of taking custody of the boys—while partying with her new friend, singer Avril Lavigne, at West Hollywood hot spot Hyde on Sept. 18, the night before retrieving Preston and Jayden. On Sept. 27 she was seen drinking champagne at the Sutra Lounge the night before she was to get the boys back from Federline.

How could she possibly act so irresponsibly, especially when the stakes were so high? Despite Gordon’s findings that drug and alcohol abuse are a big part of the problem—a source close to Federline claims both he and Spears are no strangers to partying but that Federline “has done a 180 and straightened up his act”—Spears has refused to see her constant carousing as a negative. “Till this day I don’t think it was alcohol or depression,” she wrote on her Web site May 29, two months after shaving her head and then spending a month at the drug rehab center Promises. “I think it is actually normal for a young girl to go out after a huge divorce.” According to a Spears pal, “a lot of people around her have thrown the idea [of rehab] out there and suggested it to her. We’re all hoping she gets the help she needs.”

What’s more, Spears has systematically distanced herself from anyone who could get through to her, including her mother, Lynne, and a longtime manager; she even frequently changes cell-phone numbers, making it hard to reach her. Now it is Spears who has been cut out of her own children’s lives, at least for the moment. “Unless Britney’s attorney at the next hearing proves that these allegations are untrue or inaccurate, it’s difficult to reverse a temporary loss of custody,” says L.A. family law attorney Scott Weston. “In the very least, the judge won’t give her back any custody until he sees a clean test.”

But as she struggles to claim responsibility for her own life, Spears can at least take heart at this one thing: No one doubts that she truly and deeply cares about Preston and Jayden. “Britney loves her children, but she’s obsessed with keeping herself out there so she will not become yesterday’s news,” says someone who knows her well. “She has her priorities mixed up, and she’s doing things the wrong way, but in the end she wants to still be a big star, find true love and live happily ever after. She wants to live the fairy tale. But right now she just can’t cope with reality.”

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