San Diego — Frustration at having basic physical and emotional needs neglected has driven a small but growing number of children to turn their parents into the authorities for using drugs. The immediate result in such cases often is the breakup of the family, at least temporarily. The children are placed in foster or other interim care, while the arrested parents face the criminal charges against them.
Officials are not sure what the long-term effects will be on parents and children because the phenomenon is so new. They agree there will be a growing number of such incidents because of the publicity surrounding each case and because of the intense antidrug campaigns children are exposed to in school and from the media.
``Kids in substance-abusing families are often very angry. This may be a way of getting back, but whether it's good or bad will depend on the final outcome,'' said Margaret Wulbert, head of psychological evaluation services for juvenile programs in San Diego.
``If the net result is that the family restructures itself, then in the end the child's anger is being taken care of.''
In most of the dozen or so California cases widely reported on in the last six months, the children have been returned to the custody of their parents after brief periods in foster care.
Authorities say judges are loath to break up the natural family unit. Some children have expressed great remorse and guilt over their actions and begged to be reunited with their parents. Other children remain in foster care, while their cases move through the juvenile courts and their parents' cases wait for adjudication in the criminal courts.
In San Diego County last year in two separate incidents, two teenage girls turned their parents in to the authorities for using drugs. Later, police said the children were frustrated that money for food and clothing was being squandered on drugs and that younger siblings were being neglected.
In the first case, the 15-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother have been placed with relatives pending the outcome of the mother's case. The mother, Debbie Anne Russell, has been charged with misdemeanor possession of methamphetamines and child neglect.
Ironically, the children's grandfather, Robert W. Russell Sr., who was awarded temporary custody of the boy, told reporters that the arrest was ``the best thing that could have happened'' to his daughter-in-law because ``she's a pretty good mother when she's straight.'' Mrs. Russell has refused to be interviewed. The few things she has said indicated deep resentment at the notoriety that accompanies these cases.
In the second case, a 16-year-old girl turned in her parents and another adult to sheriff's deputies, complaining that the adults furnished drugs to her and her 14-year-old brother and then used the boy to make pornographic videos.
When the San Diego district attorney's office late last month tried to prosecute the mother on two felony counts of giving marijuana to minors, the children refused to testify against her. The attorney representing the youngsters said the children had decided they wanted to live with the mother again. The district attorney dropped the charges against the mother in the hope of making a better case against the father and the third defendant.
In another widely publicized case in Orange County, a 13-year-old girl who turned her parents in was reunited with her parents after a brief stay in a public shelter for abused children.
The girl, Deanna Young, had gathered up thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and pills and taken it in a garbage bag to the police station after attending a church lecture on the effects of drugs.
Charges against the parents, Bobby Dale and Judith Ann Young, were dropped after they agreed to complete a drug-counseling program. After the family was back together, the girl said she would do it again, but urged other children who are thinking of following her example to ``talk with their parents first.''
The mother also advised children who suspect their parents are using drugs not to go to the police but to approach a trusted adult.
About 60 percent of Southern California teenagers told pollsters last November they would ``consider'' turning their parents in for drug use, according to results of a survey done for Contemporary Psychology Associates of Los Angeles.
The study questioned youngsters between the ages of 12 and 16 at schools and in shopping malls.
Asked if they would turn in drug-using parents, 25 percent of the youngsters said ``absolutely yes,'' and another 35 percent said they might do so.
``It appears that the youngsters of the '80s are now starting to discipline the parents of the permissive '60s and '70s,'' said Robert Butterworth, one of three Los Angeles psychologists who commissioned the study.
Officials say the rash of incidents can be traced partly to First Lady Nancy Reagan's ``Just Say No'' antidrug campaign.
In the San Diego city schools, about half the 65,000 elementary-school children are members of ``Just Say No'' clubs, in-school groups organized by volunteer parents and teachers to foster an awareness of drug and alcohol abuse.
The clubs -- boasting their own banners, buttons, and coloring books -- were started to counteract the heavy pressure some children feel to experiment with drugs.
The clubs give kids a positive image of themselves and alert them to the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, says Jack Campana, coordinator of the drug and sex education programs for San Diego schools. Some clubs, which are social as well as educational organizations, marched in Christmas parades last month and plan events such as rollerskating outings and school assemblies.
With the children under a barrage of antidrug messages both at school and from television, officials say it is reasonable to expect a spiraling number of cases of children turning in their parents. Following the massively publicized campaigns against child abuse of the last few years, public officials have seen an explosion in the number of reports of suspected child abuse.
``For some of the kids, it's the hopelessness they're feeling in the family structure. Law officers are prevalent in the schools now. Drug education introduces an authority figure. My own daughter is in junior high and she lets me know that there are narcotics agents in the schools. She's very antidrug,'' said Ms. Wulbert of the San Diego juvenile program.
Civil libertarians, criminal defense attorneys, and other professionals express misgivings with the new popularity of drug bashing. While admitting that drug abuse is a serious problem, they would prefer to see a greater emphasis on getting help for the abusers instead of punishing them. Comparisons are made to the indoctrination of youth in Nazi Germany, when children were encouraged to turn in parents for political crimes.
``While I think it's critical to address the issue of drug abuse, when kids turn in parents there is the risk of undermining family ties. It's much more healthful to encourage kids to go straight to their parents. If that's been tried, the next step is to talk to a trusted adult, relative, teacher, or minister,'' says Dr. Deborah Zambianco, a clinical child psychologist in San Diego.
``While some children are responsible and conscientious, other kids are acting impulsively and seeking revenge.''
Furthermore, the child who blows the whistle could end up living with a burden of guilt for having disrupted the family unit, says Dr. LaMar Fox, director of the Child Guidance Clinic at Children's Hospital in San Diego.
``The kid just can't win unless the parent says, `Gee, thanks, I needed that,''' he says.