Children who `tell' on parents

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THE recent case of a preteen California girl who reported her parents to the police for growing marijuana in their backyard raises some sticky issues involving privacy, family unity, and the responsibility of youth. The youngster's actions were prompted by a drug education program in school that urged the children to ``blow the whistle'' on anyone who offers them narcotics or who they see using them. The girl became something of a celebrity overnight -- with authorities publicly praising her for courage in doing her civic duty.

What the young accuser hadn't counted on, however, was that she would be held in protective custody -- separated from parents she deeply cared for -- pending a criminal investigation.

This case is not unique. Authorities report a growing number of child-initiated complaints, often against parents or relatives, especially on charges of molestation and drug abuse.

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What society now seems to be saying to children is that in a crisis, it is permissible -- even commendable -- to turn your parents over to the law.

If a child's well-being is being threatened and there is no other place to turn, such actions may be justified.

There are serious dangers of misuse, however. There have been situations where children have lodged fraudulent complaints to ``get even'' with parents who have punished them or restricted their activities.

Also, some juvenile judges say there are instances of children being prompted by one parent to erroneously charge molestation by the other in order to influence the awarding of custody.

Some even see the process of ``turning in'' parents as analogous to German youths spying on relatives and turning them over to authorities during the Hitler regime.

Those youngsters were rewarded for loyalty to the government and told that their patriotism far transcended any responsibility to family.

Is this the type of atmosphere we want to foster?

Many professionals who deal with children have strong reservations about encouraging youth to go directly to police rather than working informally with support groups.

Some would encourage youngsters to talk confidentially with teachers or school counselors and to seek advice from other relatives or adult friends. Turning in their parents would be a last resort.

``We should not have children reporting,'' flatly states veteran juvenile jurist John M. Yeaman of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Missouri. Judge Yeaman, immediate past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, says that extensive publicity about child abuse and drug abuse by parents -- attended by public officials urging youth to blow the whistle on their own families -- has often put children in a no-win situation.

``You ask kids to report, and you end up blowing the family right open,'' say Judge Yeaman. ``It's our job to keep families together as long as we can.''

The juvenile court judge says youngsters should be urged to ``tell someone in authority,'' preferably a teacher or counselor. ``They'll come to us and we'll investigate without getting the child involved,'' he adds.

Others make a clear distinction between situations of child abuse and parental drug abuse.

Bruce Nicholson, project director of the American Bar Association's Child Sex Abuse Law Reform Project, points out that all 50 states now have laws mandating that instances of abuse be reported.

``The child should tell a teacher or a psychologist or a doctor that he has been abused. And they will take it from there,'' says Mr. Nicholson.

``But this is a very different issue from parents using drugs,'' he adds. ``The laws here don't address reporting.'' With drugs -- as with alcohol abuse -- the focus perhaps should be on educational efforts and family counseling and treatment rather than on bringing in the criminal justice system, suggests the ABA official.

Wade Henderson, associate director of the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union says that ACLU is just now assessing the ``rights'' issues involved in President Reagan's recent antidrug recommendations.

``Sadly, the children [who report parents] have no concept of what they're doing and how it might affect their families and themselves,'' he points out. ``And, on another level, the whole thing smacks of young `brown shirts.' ''

A Thursday column

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