If Kids Get in Trouble, Parents May Feel Heat

Laws proliferate to hold parents accountable for misdeeds of children - and courts so far back them up.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As America struggles to find solutions to teen crime, parents of young lawbreakers are increasingly being forced to pay the price.

In Lake County, Ill., for example, parents fork out $10 a night to cover jail costs for wayward offspring. In Boston, three poor families are paying with an eviction from public housing.

This growing effort to drive down youth crime by holding parents more accountable for their children prompts a sigh of relief in many quarters. But others raise concerns that the crackdown is unfair, targeted at poor, struggling families caught between the demand that parents work and the need to closely supervise their teenagers.

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To Carol and Lawrence Berry, class and equity are major players in a saga now unfolding in South Boston. They awoke on a chill December morning to news that their son, Keith, was apparently involved in an ugly late-night fracas. The incident, in which Keith and some friends allegedly beat up two Hispanic women and threw bottles into a Hispanic family's home, was being called a hate crime.

As a result, the Boston Housing Authority is seeking to evict the family from its tiny public-housing apartment - and a state appeals judge on Friday refused to delay the eviction of the Berrys and two other families. Now, as the Berrys take their increasingly high-profile plea to a higher court, their case may begin to define a tougher standard for parental responsibility in America.

"Parents have always had a civil responsibility - that if my kid throws a rock through your window, I have to pay for it," says Mary Fairchild of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But there's a new trend toward giving courts the power to make parents themselves pay for kids' crimes."

Seventeen states hold now parents criminally liable for the deeds of their kids. In California, parents can face one year in jail and a $2,500 fine for failing to supervise their kids.

FAILURE to keep a close watch on Keith is what got the Berrys in trouble. The housing authority is invoking a federal "one-strike-and-you're-out" law designed to rid America's housing projects of drugs and racism. Authorities say they are battling a history of violence and racism in the city's troubled housing complex.

But the Berrys had little warning. Keith had no criminal record. He volunteered at the local church.

Critics say penalizing such parents is unfair. Government should "help innocent people, not actively seek to punish them," says Brian Burke, the Berrys' lawyer.

Moreover, critics says, the trend of cracking down on parents only exacerbates their precarious situation - especially regarding discipline. "Most parents [today] are afraid to impose physical discipline because they're afraid they'll lose their children," says Dana Mack, author of "The Assault on Parenthood." "They're afraid a social worker will show up at their door."

Because social workers focus primarily on low-income Americans, tough laws unfairly target the poor, these critics say.

Still, state and local authorities press on. Their reasoning is twofold. "One part is punitive, saying parents have to pay attention to their kids," says NCSL's Ms. Fairchild. The other part is the recognition that the problem may not be only with the child but with the family, too, she says.

Take Lake County, Ill., an affluent suburb filled with malls and corporate headquarters that's sandwiched between Chicago and Milwaukee. As the area has grown, so has youth crime.

Under a new law, parents can be made to pay $10 per day if their child is sent to jail. Although the fee might cover only the child's dinner, it's meant to send a signal. "It's a small step - an effort to wake people up to the idea that they have to have some family relationship," says David Stolman, a county board commissioner. Three states - Idaho, Indiana, and New Hampshire - have passed similar laws.

But this law - and most parental-responsibility laws - are relatively new and only sporadically enforced. Thus, it's not clear if they goad parents into being more responsible.

Some question if the idea of parental responsibility can go too far. In the Louisiana bayou town of St. Martinville, the family of a teenage girl has filed suit, saying chaperones of a 1994 Christmas party should have stopped the girl from having sex - and getting pregnant. The case is entering the trial phase.

Meanwhile in Boston, the Berrys and two other families are appealing their case to the state's highest court. Although they continue to fight the eviction, the Berrys have already packed up their home, ready for whatever comes next.

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