The Politics of Parental Grieving


The story is powerful, almost mythic, yet tragically true. A young woman goes to a fine university in a rural community and, asleep in her dorm room during her freshman year, is raped and beaten by an intruder. He strangles her with a Slinky toy.

The shattered mother, Connie Clery, stands at the end of her driveway a week after the funeral and tells a friend: Something must be done. A wrong must be righted. She and her husband embark on an epic 13-year crusade that results in two sweeping federal laws and 13 state statutes that compel colleges to collect and disclose the details of every crime committed on every campus.

Mission accomplished? Not yet. Binge drinking and date rape must be stamped out next. And violence at the high schools. “We have the whole country behind us,” says Clery, who believes schools remain committed to covering up campus crime. “We’re right there with our enemies, in the pit.”


Yet the schools say the steady rain of regulation is creating more paperwork than police work. George Washington University, for example, says the latest federal law will compel police on the District of Columbia campus to track crime way out on public portions of Pennsylvania Avenue and the nearby World Bank building.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t know what to report and what not to report,” says Dolores Stafford, chief of the GWU campus police. “We’ve had schools pull officers off the street to monitor compliance.”

The Clerys remain undeterred. Theirs is a classic American story of contemporary activism, a wounded family’s odyssey endlessly replayed, from Megan’s Law to missing children on milk cartons. Thanks to the unlimited power of parental grief to attract media and sway lawmakers, lawn darts in toy stores and drawstrings on children’s clothing are banned. A vaccine comes to market earlier than originally intended. A child’s sickness is linked to Love Canal, spawning the Superfund.

And at the center of them all so often stands a tragic tale, a family calamity transformed into arresting allegory, a freak occurrence offered up as a terrifying trend.

Parental grief, in fact, has become one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Already, the massacre at a high school in Littleton, Colo., has inspired a parents’ group modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving that aims to toughen gun laws and, if history is any guide, will inevitably broaden its agenda.

“You see this on hundreds of different things,” says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas expert on interest groups. “What is fascinating to me is that a lot of times the power is in the story itself, the narrative. The power it has over legislatures. Anecdotes become the evidence.”

Though it can be politically dangerous to oppose teary-eyed parents from middle-class America clutching photos of children killed by what they are certain is some institutional defect, there are signs of an emerging backlash.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recently ripped Congress for churning out laws “to appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime.”

In February, an American Bar Assn. task force said 40% of the federal criminal laws passed since the Civil War had come in just the last three decades--often “in patchwork response to newsworthy events” rather than “an identifiable federal need.”

The bar says the last Congress alone slogged through 1,000 new crime proposals, with some of the voguish laws passed in recent years--including those against drive-by shootings, interstate spouse abuse and murder committed by escaped convicts--so superfluous they were never used.

‘How Do You Say “No” to a Crying Mother?’

Even MADD founder Candy Lightner says the politics of grief have seized control of the political system. “How are you going to say ‘no’ to a crying mother?” she says. “The legislature winds up acting emotionally, and you have all these ridiculous laws passed that don’t do a hill of beans. I can relate to it, because I used to do it too.”

During the next few months, the Department of Education will write regulations to comply with the most recent campus crime-reporting provisions sought by the Clerys and signed by President Clinton last year. The law compels colleges to count crimes that occur not just on campus but near it, and instances of wrongdoing handled administratively by schools even if no crime is reported to police. It carries fines up to $25,000.

The schools say the rules only add to an already bewildering welter of crime reporting regulations, and a General Accounting Office study said confusion about the rules is one of the main reasons schools aren’t complying with the act. But the Clerys and their supporters point out that many schools have a long record of opposing anything that might poison their ivy-covered marketing image. They say rapes and assaults go unreported because schools often divert them through student disciplinary offices rather than police agencies.

S. Daniel Carter, a staffer for the Clerys’ foundation, Security on Campus Inc., based near the Clerys’ home in King of Prussia, Pa., says the schools are creating their own quandaries so officials will go easy on them.

“I don’t see how you can make it too emotionally charged when you’re talking about people’s kids,” he says. Though school lobbyists hope to negotiate some flexibility during the rule-making process, they know there is little upside to protesting too loudly.

“This is a no-win situation for people like me,” said Terry Hartle, lobbyist for the American Council on Education, higher education’s main association. “Any time real emotion based on human tragedy enters the public policy arena, it becomes more difficult to enact policy that recognizes the limitations of the world we live in.”

Some analysts say the leap from notorious news event to impulse lawmaking has, in fact, grown shorter than ever.

“Everybody has a fax machine, the Internet. The ability to reach like-minded people is greater,” says Christopher Foreman, an advocacy expert for the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “If parents are motivated, there is no telling what they could do.”

Polly Klaas Killing Led to 3-Strikes Law

Some of the most sweeping changes in public policy have their roots in isolated instances of parental pain.

California’s three-strikes felony law was inspired by the murder and rape of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was abducted from a Petaluma, Calif., slumber party at her home six years ago. The law, mimicked by other states, has resulted in instances in which nonviolent offenders have faced life in prison because judges had little flexibility to consider specific circumstances.

Many people believe that Polly’s activist father, Marc Klaas, is a backer of three strikes. Not true. Other aggrieved parents of less-sensational crimes used the Klaas girl’s particularly heinous death to win passage of a law that Klaas says is flawed.

Klaas and his nonprofit foundation, however, lobby for other anti-crime measures, including “Aimee’s Law,” a bill in Congress to require states that release murderers or molesters to compensate victims if those criminals repeat the crime.

This is not to be confused with “Jenna’s Law,” which would require that no criminal serve less than six-sevenths of a criminal sentence. Even Klaas can’t keep track of such measures.

“You know how many laws there are in this country that are named after dead kids? There must be hundreds of them,” says Klaas.

The most influential of these namesake proposals is Megan’s Law, the 1996 federal act that requires authorities to notify neighbors when a convicted child molester has moved in. The law resulted from a campaign by the parents of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was murdered in New Jersey in 1994.

States are dealing with Megan’s Law in often weirdly different ways, and critics decry the sometimes vague or inaccurate police information being distributed locally and, increasingly, over the Internet. In New Jersey, vigilantes broke into a house last year and beat up somebody they mistakenly thought was a molester. Somebody else distributed bogus fliers wrongly identifying a school counselor as a sex felon.

“I would like to see Megan’s Law cleaned up,” says Klaas. “Some states are doing good things and some are doing bad things.”

Connecticut is now on its fifth annual attempt to fix Megan’s Law, which has resulted in 18-year-olds being listed as sex predators because they had illegal sex with 15-year-olds they later married. Lawmakers are debating whether to give judges and police more discretion to decide whom to publicize as dangerous and give legal immunity in case they’re wrong.

Why do lawmakers make laws that need to be continuously repaired? The short answer is Willie Horton, the criminal who raped a woman after he was furloughed, a crime that Republicans used to help torpedo the 1988 presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

Now, “the arguments aren’t so much that this isn’t a good idea; it’s more that you can’t vote against this because you will get clobbered,” says Connecticut Rep. Michael Lawlor, corrections committee chairman for the National Council of State Governments. “The momentum behind it is that everybody feels it’s political suicide to oppose it. Even if it’s crazy legislation.”

George Washington University’s Stafford says that when she testified last year before the Senate about the schools’ objections to the latest Clery bill, senators didn’t ask her a single question. “It was definitely my perspective that their minds had been made up.”

Lawlor says he himself has voted for legislation he knew was irrational. Victim advocacy has forced the two major parties into something analogous to Cold War nuclear proliferation, with people-pleasing laws the warheads of choice.

“You can propose whatever you want” is the thinking, he says. “We can one-up you.”

Such proposals are like catnip to lawmakers. U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) has considered introducing a bill that would require universities to notify parents within 24 hours if a student is missing--which is sure to flabbergast college kids who consider capricious road trips a rite of passage.

The idea for “Bryan’s Law” resulted from a campaign by the parents of a 19-year-old Rhode Island University student whose remains washed up on a beach two years ago. Though his death remains a mystery, his parents say the school didn’t report the young man missing for six days.

Laws for Every Circumstance

At any given moment, a bereaved parent is seeking institutional change. A New Jersey mother of a murdered child is campaigning for a state law that would allow parents to display photos of their dead children in courtrooms where the accused killers are being tried.

A Maryland woman, whose son was killed while he and a friend were playing with a shotgun, teamed with a local lawmaker to seek a new felony for adults whose gross negligence leads to a child’s death. Critics say it would duplicate existing laws.

Two years ago, Massachusetts enacted Lizzie’s Law, which prevents children from being forced to visit parents who committed premeditated murder of the other parent. Though some people pointed out that in the actual case the judge refused the imprisoned father’s demand to make Lizzie come see him, a new push is underway to expand that prohibition to lesser crimes.

The phenomenon repeats itself constantly. For example:

* Lawn darts, the once-popular backyard lawn game, was banned in 1988 after a campaign by the father of a girl who was killed by an errant toss of the steel-tipped toy.

* Drawstrings on children’s clothing were banned after a campaign by a Michigan woman whose daughter was strangled in 1994 when her coat became tangled in a spiral playground slide.

* The parents of a New Jersey woman killed in a Gaza Strip terrorist attack four years ago got a federal law passed that allows U.S. citizens to sue governments that sponsor terrorism.

“You’re talking about good, law-abiding people who have a compelling story,” says Foreman, of the Brookings Institution. “What legislature isn’t going to be for parents and children?”

MADD Is the Mother of Such Movements

The mother of all such distressed-parent movements is MADD. Lightner, a suburban Sacramento real estate agent, formed the group in 1980 after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk motorist with a string of previous arrests.

“In my case, it was like keeping Cari alive,” Lightner says. “It’s a way for compensating for the death of the child.”

MADD rallied half a million volunteers to change or create 2,300 laws, including the federal act that compelled states to revive the 21-year-old drinking age. MADD made driving drunk not only a more serious crime but a more shameful social stigma. The percentage of traffic deaths related to alcohol plunged.

Yet as MADD evolved into an institution with paid staff and an increasingly broader mission, Lightner says her passion for justice was engulfed by bureaucracy. She feuded with MADD’s board over her salary demands, management style and administrative spending. She lost a power struggle in 1985 and has since worked as a lobbyist and fund-raising consultant in Washington.

She was even hired by the liquor industry to help defeat MADD’s most recent goal: lowering the 0.10 blood-alcohol standard to 0.08. A House committee defeated the proposal last year. Though MADD blames its first big defeat on lobbyists like Lightner, she says there are already too many laws on the books that aren’t being enforced.

“I don’t harp on my daughter’s death anymore,” says Lightner. “I frankly get uncomfortable when I hear these stories before the state Legislature. I have moved so far beyond that that I think: Why can’t we use research and knowledge to get these laws passed, so you don’t have to have crying parents up there testifying?”

Lightner believes that, when organizations inspired by a cause find that they have to keep raising money to ensure their existence, they are forced to keep their issue in the news, to keep it alive as a threat, even if it isn’t.

Many such organizations burn out over time or broaden their agendas to encompass related problems. They frequently accuse the government of covering up the true scope of the problem. They need to form almost symbiotic relationships with the news media to survive.

“Journalists love these kinds of stories. It’s the little guy who pushes the system and gets some response. Parents fighting for their kids,” Foreman says.

One early instance of obsessive parental advocacy came in the 1970s and involved children who died or suffered brain damage that some experts believe was caused by a common whooping cough vaccine. Though scientists still disagree on whether there is a link, parent advocacy and lawsuits drove the vaccine’s cost up 6,000% and led to creation of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which has paid out nearly $1 billion.

Activist parents have branched out to the point where some lobby for the right of parents to refuse vaccinations for their children--drawing links between them and myriad diseases--just as some parents of children sickened by bacteria found in Jack in the Box hamburgers six years ago press for increasingly tougher food-handling regulations to control “monstrous pathogens of horrific consequence.”

One issue that once seemed among this country’s most pressing social problems, kidnapped children, was triggered by the disappearance in Florida of Adam Walsh in 1981 and the efforts by his father, John Walsh, to raise awareness nationwide. Pictures of missing children became staples on milk cartons until research indicated that kidnapping by strangers was relatively rare and that most “missing” children were runaways or victims of custody disputes.

As with Lightner, tragedy nevertheless led to a second career for John Walsh, who is now host of the “America’s Most Wanted” television show.

Celebrity and book and movie deals are not uncommon outcomes of activism. Lois Gibbs was a Niagara Falls, N.Y., homemaker who believed her child’s sickliness resulted from the fact her neighborhood was built on a toxic dump known as Love Canal. Gibbs now heads a well-funded organization that trains folks in how to launch not-in-my-backyard movements.

Foreman points out that Love Canal prompted a lame-duck Democratic Congress in the final months of the Carter administration to cobble together the Superfund legislation. “The Superfund is a very, very costly program that has led to a lot of litigation and a lot of money for lawyers, and it didn’t clean up as much waste because there was a liability-avoiding frenzy.”

Such is the power of parental advocacy, a force of human nature nonpareil. Embarking on a mission, in fact, is an actual coping mechanism, says Henya Kagan (Klein), a Houston psychologist who wrote a book about parental bereavement.

“They often develop a new self, a new personality,” says Kagan, who is studying ways parents retool their lives after a loss. “They will do things such as, ‘I do this to honor my child. To save others.’ This is a fundamental concept.”

To people who haven’t lost a child, becoming an activist who is continually submerged in similar stories of death and heartbreak may seem a dark, depressing way to live. Yet Kagan says it isn’t.

“Anything you do to connect to the outside world is uplifting,” she says. Some people do more than just connect. “You become driven. You ask yourself, why was I chosen to survive my child? I try to convince myself that there is a higher reason for that. I make up that reason--to improve humanity on a larger scale. So, of course, I become a fanatic.”

Kagan began devoting herself to grief research nearly nine years ago, after her 11-year-old daughter, Gili, was killed by a reckless driver. “This is my mission,” she says.

Killing at Lehigh University

Constance and Howard Clery’s mission began not long after April 5, 1986, the day their daughter, Jeanne, was killed at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. She was a nationally ranked amateur tennis player and a top student. Her smiling, apple-cheeked face is the first thing a visitor sees on the Web site of the Clerys’ nonprofit organization.

Joseph Henry, a Lehigh student with a violent criminal record, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death a year after the killing. A drunken Henry slashed, bit and sodomized the young woman after entering her room as she slept.

The Clerys built their organization by starting with the strangers who sent their condolences. A year later, they formed Security on Campus Inc. They published a questionnaire that would allow parents to grill schools about safety. The feedback they got was disturbing: Colleges wouldn’t talk about crime.

Connie Clery contacted her state representative, who introduced a bill. She and her husband sued Lehigh, contending that Jeanne never would have gone to the school if its criminal record--38 assaults and other violent crimes over a three-year period--had been made public.

The lawsuit was settled for $2 million. Howard Clery sold his direct-mail business in 1988 and the couple built a staff, hired a public relations person.

“We were really greenhorns,” Connie Clery says. “The main ingredient was learning the power of the vote. The parents in this country really rallied behind us.”

The couple got a crime-reporting law passed in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states. Yet the mission was becoming arduous.

“After we got 13 states, I decided I was not going to live long enough to do 50 states,” Clery says. “Both Howard and I had this focus. It was extremely difficult to even work together. He was afraid I was going to lose it and maybe kill myself.”

The issue was embraced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and when the first federal act was signed by President Bush in 1990, the Clerys had seemingly accomplished their mission. They could rest.

Yet the Clerys gradually realized that many schools were finding ways to get around the act. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, didn’t report anything that occurred on campus streets, sidewalks or food courts--which constituted 90% of the crimes its police investigated.

Then a top Education Department official was quoted as saying that the law had been passed to pacify a family of a murdered student. “That absolutely ignited and refueled our engines,” Clery says.

The result was last year’s tougher crime law.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, calls the Clery killing “a unique set of circumstances involving the daughter of a reasonably wealthy family. They were politically active and able to make an impact.” He says Jeanne Clery had left her dormitory room unlocked and therefore had “not exercised the best possible care that night.”

Steinbach insists campus crime reflects the community around it--studies generally show the schools to be safer, in fact--yet he says the debate is rarely rational. “I always understood the pain [the Clerys] were going through--and their need for vindication that the school had somehow done them wrong.”

For all their objections, the schools have wound up supporting the federal bills in their final incarnations “because it looked like we had something to hide and we have nothing to hide,” says Steinbach, who nevertheless acknowledges that schools once routinely kept crime information secret.

Binge-Drinking, Date-Rape Campaigns

The Clery group has branched out considerably, lobbying for measures against binge drinking and possession of the so-called date-rape drug.

Though they keep Jeanne’s room at home exactly as she left it, the couple have moved on in some ways, such as spending their winters in Florida. But Clery says the Sun Belt sojourns don’t mean her mission is ending. She ticks off the names of other parents who essentially are living her life, as sorrowful advocates born on the day their children died.

“These are very important victims,” she says.

“It takes fire in your belly to be able to stand this kind of horror. Sometimes, it’s like living in a sewer. And I’d like to get out. All of our board of directors are victims. They are the only ones who understand that we can’t get out until we’re sure that the colleges are doing their job to protect these kids.

“When I get to that crossroads, maybe I can give up,” she says. “Maybe I’ll never get there.”


Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.