Do parents belong on the witness stand?
Imagine your child finally gathers the courage to tell you about the time she smoked pot. You quickly stop her and pull out your Miranda card.Skip to next paragraph
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"You have the right to remain silent," you begin. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."
No, this is not the latest episode of "Ally McBeal." It's a scenario lawyers and legislators use to tell parents that conversations with their children could wind up in court.
In almost every state, a mother or father can be forced to take the stand and break the "you can tell me anything" promise to their child. But now Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to keep prosecutors from using this controversial tactic - and other states are taking notice.
Last week, bills to protect the sanctity of family conversations were introduced in both the state House and the Senate. They came after two couples were subpoenaed to testify against their sons in a rape case.
"We would hope that if children came to their parents, they would be able to share their problems," says state Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, who introduced one of the bills. But as it stands now, "if my children come to me, I have to say, 'Go talk to your priest, go talk to your doctor, because I can't hear it.' "
If passed, parent-child confidentiality would be similar to that already granted priest and penitent, lawyer and client, therapist and patient - though many argue the secrecy between a parent and a child is paramount to all those.
"What I hope we want to do as a society is to encourage a child to go to the person on earth that child most trusts, a mother or a father," says Lawrence Goldman, vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "What my kid tells me is none of the state's business."
Prosecutors say they ask for a parent's testimony only as a last resort. But the practice is on the rise - at a time when juveniles are more frequently being charged as adults.
Some parents want to testify against children - especially if the crime is particularly horrible, say prosecutors. Some are concerned a parent-child privilege could, in effect, bar parents from testifying, even if they wanted to.
"If your child comes to you and tells you they smoked a joint, as a prosecutor, I don't need to know that," says Gary Walker, co-chairman of the juvenile-justice advisory committee for the National District Attorneys Association. "But what if your child commits murder?"
As prosecuting attorney in Marquette, Mich., Mr. Walker says parents are not forced to testify in 90 percent of the cases. In the 10 percent when they are, "it's literally agonizing" for everyone involved.
Walker remembers one such murder case: "We had a mother who knew her testimony was going to help convict her son, but she also knew her son brutally raped and murdered a girl," he says. "As a parent, that must be the seventh ring of hell."