Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Courts, Conscience Put Parents on Trial

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Courts, Conscience Put Parents on Trial

Article excerpt

THE old public service announcement - "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" - once served as a gentle reminder of parental responsibility. But what began as a nudge on the elbow is turning into handcuffs on the wrist as judges and lawmakers redefine "responsibility." For parents of the '90s, an updated warning could read: "It's anytime of the day or night. If you don't know where your children are - and what they are doing - you can be fined or jailed for their misdeeds."

The latest example of this punitive approach to parenthood comes from Boston. City Councilor Bruce Bolling has proposed an ordinance calling for fines of up to $100 and jail sentences of up to 15 days for parents who fail to supervise their children. His ordinance is aimed at young people who are truant, involved in gangs, and using drugs and alcohol.

Mr. Bolling, who is black, represents the city's Roxbury neighborhood, hard hit in recent weeks by a wave of black-on-black murders. His motive is laudable: The black community, he says, must assume responsibility for its own problems.

But his proposal, similar to laws passed earlier in Detroit and Los Angeles, raises troubling questions for all parents: Where does parental responsibility end? And how many parents, even in stable middle-class homes, can be totally accountable for the actions of their offspring?

Until the late '80s, parental responsibility remained fairly clearcut and primary. Communities shared an assumption that mothers and fathers would nourish and protect their children. The emphasis was on moral responsibility. For many parents, the ultimate terror was being called before a teacher if a child was found wanting academically. For others, public embarrassment didn't extend much beyond making restitution for a neighbor's window broken by a son's or daughter's wayward ball.

Today the chilling new focus is on parents' legal responsibility. A mother stands before the law from the moment of conception. From alcohol and cigarettes to cocaine, a pregnant woman is accountable for her behavior. By one count, more than 60 women across the country have faced prosecution in the past two years for using illegal drugs during pregnancy. …

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