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St. Louis police summons: Parents need to keep tabs on kids or head to court

Is the St. Louis Police Department overstepping its bounds, or perhaps its expectations, by taking parents to court for not knowing where their teens are at all hours of the day?

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    Barricades block the entrance to the St. Louis County Police Headquarters in Clayton, Missouri November 23, 2014.
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Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the St. Louis Police Department.

Not all parents respond well to being told how to do their jobs, particularly by those accused of crossing the line while doing theirs. 

This may be the case in St. Louis, Mo. as police have issued summonses to parents who can’t keep track of their teenagers.

Police are taking parents and guardians to court for failing to know the whereabouts of their children. On Saturday night, officers issued summonses to relatives of four teens targeted in a downtown shooting late Saturday night, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The paper reported that at around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the foot by someone in a passing vehicle. Police took the boy’s friends, two boys and a girl, to the police station and issued citations to the adults responsible for them.

Leah K. Freeman, public information officer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department wrote in an email that the parents/guardians were issued summonses for "Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minors."

Freeman clarified that the teens were in violation of a city curfew law

"This is not a new ordinance, it is just one that the investigators in this case decided to enforce after they were unable to get a hold of the parents/guardians of the juveniles for some time after the incident," Freeman wrote. 

“It’s a tactic police have begun using more frequently after several people became victims of downtown attacks by groups of teens,” according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Because none of the adults responsible for the teens knew where the kids were at the time of the shooting, the adults were charged with violating the city’s ordinance on parents’ responsibility for their children.  

The ordinance says it’s illegal “to support, to encourage, aid, or cause” those younger than 17 to “commit any act or engage in any conduct which would be injurious” to such child’s morals or health, according to the Post-Dispatch. The police's point: when parents don't know the whereabouts of their child, they place them in harm’s way.

“I want parents to get in the loop,” Capt. Daniel Howard, commander of the Fourth District, which includes downtown, told the Post-Dispatch. “If parents or guardians are held accountable, then maybe they’ll have a conversation with their teens before they cut them loose on the streets.”

Barbara Koppe, owner of Marriage & Family Therapy in Clayton, Missouri (about five minutes outside St. Louis) works as a private therapist with families, many of whom are fearful for their teenagers as a result of the ongoing violence in the region. In a phone interview she told the Monitor, "Parents are asking me how to keep their kids out of trouble and obviously you don't want them to set foot in Ferguson, but keeping track of teens at the best of times can be nearly impossible." 

"I honestly don't know how the police can enforce something like that," Ms. Koppe says. "The way teens work these days with cell phones and texts that end up changing their trajectories as plans evolve it's just a completely impractical thing to expect of parents. Event he most well meaning parents."

Koppe added, "It's such a waste of our governmental powers citing parents for this. Sure there are parents who don't care, and this kind of action is not going to change that."

As the mom of four boys, ages 11, 15, 19, and 21, with multiple experiences dealing with the teen years and all the challenges they bring, I am tempted to tell the police that what looks good in theory could be totally unrealistic in real life. 

Peaches Jones, a staff member at Victory Family Outreach Center in Washington, D.C. is the mom of three, boys ages 18 and 28, and a girl age 35 who spends her days helping families cope with issues such as errant teenagers, family values, and communication.

“Teenagers sneak out on the best parents,” Ms. Jones said. “Also, I can see charging parents with not knowing with a six or 10-year-old is at night but not a teenager. Kids lie to parents about their whereabouts. I told my parents I was sleeping at a friend’s when I was in the club!”

The summons come close to assuming that parents A: Don’t care about their kids, B: Should be punished for their child being a victim to senseless violence, and C: The violence involving kids will be stopped by parents knowing their whereabouts.

Ms. Jones said she recommends that police talk to parents who are having trouble controlling their teenagers about getting mentors involved. 

“So many times I see parents trying their best, but that teen may just be in a phase where anything the parent says is something to ignore and not respect,” she said. “In those cases a mentor can really work. They will listen to a mentor when they won’t listen to a parent.”

Perhaps more officers in St. Louis can be encouraged by the department to learn about being mentors, or perhaps the department might engage groups like Mentor International in finding experienced mentors in their area to help. That organization offers a nationwide listing for both those who wish to volunteer and those in need of help.

I am not advocating loosie-goosie, no rules, free-range parenting of teenagers.

What I am suggesting is that there are better strategies for community engagement that do not involve criminalizing families who are in need of resources, education, and better strategies.

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