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Can We Really Legislate Good Parenting? : Families: New laws are supposed to force parents to reassert authority over their rebellious kids. But critics say the measures are just another empty threat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking back, Leticia Delava describes her crime as “covering up.”

On mornings when she was unsure about her son’s claims of being ill, she just wrote excuses to the school without consulting a doctor. “That’s what got me in trouble,” said Delava, whose son, then 12, missed 30 days of school in 1991.

After officials concluded that he had been truant, Delava became one of the first people prosecuted under a state law designed to pressure parents to exert more control over their children. California is one of about two dozen states to enact such laws in the past few years.

Delava, a single mother of two from Downey, was convicted and sentenced to spend six months working with disabled children and to enroll in parenting classes and counseling.

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Perhaps surprisingly, she approves of the so-called parental responsibility laws. “It opens parents’ eyes,” she said. “It opened my eyes.” While her son now lives with his father, she said she is now more strict with her 14-year-old daughter.

Supporters of the new laws believe parents need an official push to reassert their authority.

“A lot of these parents, they’re afraid of their sons or daughters,” said Chris Manson, an aide to Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), who recently reintroduced a bill that would require parents to paddle their delinquent son or daughter in open court. If they do not paddle hard enough, a bailiff would take over. Last year the bill was killed in committee by a single vote.

“It’s up to the judge’s discretion what’s hard enough,” Manson said. “We don’t want a parent to go out there and tap them. We want a parent to paddle the juvenile offender.”

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Under the proposal, the bailiff would also carry out the paddling in the place of parents who refuse, he said.

“By bringing the mother in, or guardian, and having them paddle the juvenile offender, it establishes an authority who says, ‘I can and will hold you accountable,’ ” Manson said.

During the past three years, legislators across the country have responded to public demand for action against rising juvenile violence by targeting substandard parenting, said Barry Krisberg, a sociologist. He is also president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, an independent, 85-year-old research organization based in San Francisco that supports alternatives to incarceration.

Old laws were beefed up to punish parents more severely for not adequately protecting or supporting their children. New laws in about 25 states now also hold parents financially--and in California, criminally--liable for their children’s behavior, according to the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based National Center for Juvenile Justice.

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In the current get-really-tough political climate, California parents face increased fines for failing to buckle up children in cars, and they can be punished for allowing children access to firearms or failing to make them wear life vests on boats. They are liable for up to $25,000 in property damage committed by their children. They can be fined $50 if their children break curfew.

They can also be arrested under a controversial law, upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1993, for failing to exercise “reasonable care, control, supervision and protection” of their minor children. Punishment can include fines or jail time.

But others argue that good parenting, like morality, is too personal to be legislated. Besides, with jails already brimming, parents too poor to afford fines and juries sympathetic to the plight of overwhelmed parents, they say the laws amount to no more than another poor parenting technique--an empty threat.

So far, of about 1,000 juvenile delinquency cases reviewed by the Los Angeles city attorney last year, fewer than half a dozen parents were charged with a crime, said Marty Vranicar, supervising deputy for the city attorney’s gang unit. Most are diverted into parenting programs.

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Parental-responsibility laws are popular because they are cheap and easy, Krisberg said. “They don’t appear to cost much because they don’t do anything.”

Worse, because such laws appear to disregard wider social forces, they are also “dangerously naive,” he added.

“Does anyone believe a 16-year-old mother who’s never had much parenting herself and doesn’t know anything about parenting is going to become an ideal mother because of laws on the books that she’s going to get arrested? Maybe it’s an IQ test: Anybody who’d believe that would fail.”

Indeed, Krisberg predicted that parents will react by disengaging from delinquent children for fear of legal reprisals, and that such laws will be enforced selectively against poor, minority parents.

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“There’s no question, the family is where we ought to put our energy,” he said. “It’s just the threat of punishment won’t change the behavior of at-risk families.”

Single parent Mitch Gluckman contends that he learned nothing after serving three months of a one-year sentence in County Jail after he rear-ended another car in June and his unbuckled 5-year-old hit his mouth on the dashboard, knocking out two baby teeth.

Gluckman, 43, a handyman from Canoga Park, believes his sentence was too harsh and accomplished little. “I understand seat belts are good,” he said.

He said son Sean undid the belt and was trying to scramble to the back when Gluckman hit the other car.

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If anyone learned anything from the incident, it was Sean, Gluckman said. “What was there to teach me?” he asked.

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Yale University social historian John Demos said there is no real evidence to show that parents are doing a worse job today than they ever did. But today’s concerns parallel those voiced 100 years ago, he said.

“In magazines of the 1880s and 1890s, you can read articles how parental authority is collapsing and that parents don’t seem to have any backbone anymore. The language is remarkably similar to today. It’s a very old idea in this country. It seems to be repeated every generation for the last 100 or 150 years,” Demos said.

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Today’s efforts by government to intervene in child-raising hark back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when poor parents would be summoned to court, admonished, and if they didn’t improve, have their children taken away.

Scandinavian countries were the first to experiment in modern times with legislating parental behavior when they banned spanking in the 1970s, said Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island.

Unlike Americans, Swedes, for example, did not intend to inflict punishment on parents and never enacted any consequence for breaking the law, he said. The underlying point, Gelles added, was to create a moral climate that would change behavior. “The idea was, when someone would swat a child in public, someone else would say, ‘You can’t do that. It’s illegal now.’ ”

Gelles said the threats worked for some parents. Contrasted with kids in the United States, Swedish children have indeed experienced less spanking, pushing and shoving. But rates of the most severe violence, including child homicide, have remained equal. “The high-end forms of abuse are very difficult to legislate against,” Gelles said.

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While many Americans remain convinced that inflicting severe punishment changes behavior, Gelles said it works only when the punishment is certain and quick--a rarity.

But in Los Angeles, Tim Higgins, head of the district attorney’s juvenile division, insists that parents such as Delava are turning around in direct response to tougher threats of criminal prosecution.

His program, Abolish Chronic Truancy, uses deputy district attorneys to educate and threaten parents of truant elementary pupils.

When the parents try to explain that they can’t make their children go to school, he advises them to “pull the TV out of the room. Walk the kid to school. If he won’t get up, fine. Pull the covers off. Without hurting him, pull him out of bed. If that doesn’t work, throw a bucket of ice water on his face. Make it happen.”

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If they don’t, he tells them that they could end up with a $2,500 fine or a year in County Jail. “We don’t say we might refer you here or there. We say, ‘I personally will take you to court.’ ”

Higgins said the program has a 95% success rate--at least in the short term with parents of younger children.

Most agree parental responsibility laws are useless against parents of older teen-agers. “What can a single mother, who weighs 105 pounds, do with a 6-foot-2 son, at age 16 who says, ‘I’m not going to go to school’?” Higgins asked. “What do you expect her to do, get beat up for telling him ‘no’?”

Rather than laws, said Peter Greenwood, director of criminal justice research at RAND, the Santa Monica research institute, the most promising solutions to combat delinquency are teaching parenting skills--early interventions with young, high-risk mothers to teach them well-baby skills and home management. “Both have been shown to reduce child abuse, improve behavior and improve school performance,” he said.

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As far as a legislative solution, he said, “I’ve never seen any studies to show that it works.”

According to Kerby T. Alvy, founder and director of the California Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Studio City, only 5% of U.S. parents have taken any parenting classes.

“They shouldn’t be mandated when kids are in trouble or create havoc in the community. They should be there to begin with,” he said. “Our churches, schools, businesses and civic organizations, all our elected officials should be encouraging parents to be involved in parent training from the beginning.

Encouraging is a good word here. We have to become a more encouraging society about parenting and parent training.”

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