Their mother is dead. Their father is behind bars, accused in her killing.
Who should take care of the Winkler children?
Proceedings began Thursday inside an El Dorado County courtroom to decide that wrenching question.
Should the three young children stay with their maternal grandfather, Napa artist Don Hatfield, with whom they have lived since their father stabbed their mother to death in late February in their Cameron Park home?
Or should Eva, 5, Ariel, 4, and Alex, 10 months, be sent to live with their father's parents, Janeth and George Winkler, a social worker and a retired farmer who live in a small town in Iowa?
Hatfield and Janeth Winkler both appeared in court Thursday in one of the first steps toward deciding the children's fates.
Ultimately a judge will rule, based on investigations of the homes and lives of Hatfield and the Winklers, where the children will stay as their father's criminal case moves forward.
Todd Winkler, 45, has been charged with murder in the stabbing death of his 37-year-old wife, Rachel, on Feb. 27 inside their home near Cameron Air Park.
Prosecutors contend that he killed her in a fit of rage during an argument. But Winkler, described by his lawyer as a successful businessman and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, contends that he stabbed his wife in self-defense after she attacked him with scissors. He has pleaded not guilty.
Friends and family members have said that Winkler traveled frequently for his work with a company that conducts diabetes research and that his marriage with Rachel was troubled. Nevertheless, they said, her death shocked them to the core and the fate of the couple's children weighs on their hearts.
In deciding guardianship of the youngsters, the court will weigh a host of factors, including income and family support, and rule based on what it deems is in "the best interest" of the children.
Either Hatfield or Janeth Winkler are likely to be named "general guardian," taking primary custody, while the other probably will be allowed extended visits.
The two grandparents, who visited with the children together on Wednesday, started a mediation process Thursday in hopes of avoiding a trial in the matter. Another hearing has been set for next month.
Since the death of his daughter, Hatfield's days have revolved around his three grandchildren. Age 64 and a recent widower, he suddenly became their primary caretaker, shepherding them through meals, baths, school enrollment, dance lessons and therapy sessions.
Hatfield, who lost his wife, Janey, to cancer in January, said it is his singular goal to raise the children with the help of a wide circle of friends.
"I have left no stone unturned," he said of his efforts to become their guardian. "They should be here with me."
His attorney, Wendy Coghlan, said "it would be a tragedy" if the court ruled they should move across the country.
"In Napa, they have a whole support system of people who love them, young children to play with, friends of their mother's," Coghlan said outside of court. "They don't know anyone in Iowa."
Janeth Winkler declined to speak at length with a reporter Thursday.
But her attorney in the guardianship matter, Lilka Martinez, said she and her husband are close to the children, whom they occasionally cared for when their parents were away.
Janeth Winkler is a lifetime resident of Hamburg in southern Iowa, has a degree in psychology and plans to retire from her job as a social work administrator "to devote full time to the children," Martinez said.
"She very much wants those kids," she said.
Confined to a jail cell, Todd Winkler has told the court in a written declaration that he wants his children to live with his parents in Iowa. He maintains his criminal case will be resolved in his favor and "anticipates having the children" once that happens, said his lawyer, David Weiner.
Martinez, Janeth Winkler's lawyer, argued Thursday that the youngsters have been deprived of speaking to their father since he was jailed, and asked that the two older children be allowed to talk to him by phone.
But Hatfield's lawyer strenuously objected to the idea of contact between "tiny little children like this and an incarcerated parent who has killed their mother."
"I object to her fighting for him to have anything at this point," Coghlan said.
Judge Thomas A. Smith appointed an attorney to represent the children's interests. He said the lawyer and a therapist should decide together whether allowing the youngsters telephone contact with their father is a good idea.
No one is certain what the Winkler children saw on the day their mother was killed.
By the time Hatfield learned that his daughter was dead that morning, police were on the scene of the family's quiet Cameron Park street. Rachel's body was inside the home, Todd was under arrest, and the children were with a neighbor.
Hatfield drove to the scene and brought the youngsters back home with him to Napa.
Despite their profound losses, they "are doing very well," Hatfield said in an interview.
Eva, the older girl, "has had some telling dreams lately," and has talked a bit about her changed life, he said. A fund has been established at Wells Fargo Bank to help pay for the children's needs, and a cadre of friends and relatives rallied around the youngsters and helped Hatfield with daily tasks.
Hatfield, a noted impressionist artist whose work hangs in collections around the globe, did not pick up a paintbrush for weeks after the death of Rachel, his primary inspiration and a talented artist in her own right.
But in recent days, he said, he has found the strength to open a new canvas.
His subject, once again, is his daughter. Stroke by stroke, Rachel is coming to life in the studio of the four-bedroom home that Hatfield is renting to accommodate himself and the children.
He is painting through his tears.
"I'm thinking about the moment she came into this world," said Hatfield. "Her brilliance. Her energy. The life she had with her mother and I. Her dancing on the lawn. Her sense of humor. Her great spirit. Her advocacy for the underdog. And, of course, her intersection with Todd Winkler and its result."
Following Thursday's hearing in Cameron Park, Hatfield followed Janeth Winkler into a mediation room to open discussion about where the children would live. Back home in Napa, Eva, Ariel and Alex were waiting.