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... but the state is a dangerous parent

Either you think Big Brother knows best for your children or you don't, says Ann Treneman
Otto Standelli is Jack Straw's kind of man. He believes in discipline, family values and, just in case there's any doubt, God, mom and apple pie. He worries about children on the street with nothing but time and trouble on their hands. Otto thinks a curfew is a good thing and that all parents should know where their children are. He is not alone. In America at least 1,000 communities - including 146 of America's 200 largest cities - have imposed curfews on juveniles.

In Otto's home town of Silverton, Oregon, curfew is taken for granted. "We've had one since 1943," says Lynn Jenks, the local police department's community service officer. But the law that insists that every child under 18 is off the streets by 10pm was not enough to make this small community (6,170 people, 22 churches, four bars) feel safe.

Otto didn't feel safe because children kept breaking into his scrap yard and spraying words he cannot even bring himself to say. If Jack Straw were to visit Silverton's quiet and tree-shaded streets, Otto would drive him down the hill to the yard full of washing machines and junked cars to see those words.

There is a pattern to discussions about children and crime in middle America and it is no surprise to discover that Otto and his wife have 11 children and 44 grandchildren, and that none of them has ever so much as brushed with the law. His secret is simple, he says, and it is discipline. There is nothing wrong with the occasional "pop on the bottom". He adds: "God put that padding on our rear ends for a reason." Tony Blair might want to meet Mr Standelli as well.

What both would find in Silverton is where all this talk of curfews and spanking and discipline leads. If they want to launch a "feel-good" flirtation with family values and parental discipline, they should be forewarned: a curfew is never going to be enough.

"A curfew in itself doesn't control the crime," says Lynn Jenks. "But it does put some of the responsibility back on to the parents. For too long parents have thought, `Let the schools handle it, let the police handle it, I'm too busy. Let someone else do it.' Now it's the parents' turn." In America the purpose of curfews is as much to control parents as to control children. Many of the curfews come with parental clauses, and in cities such as Dallas police have cited mothers and fathers "judged to have known" that their children were out late.

The next logical step is to hold parents accountable for everything their offspring do and this is is now happening throughout the States. But it happened first in Silverton - about 18 months ago, not long after Mr Standelli decided he'd had enough of being taunted by young vandals. As a city councillor he helped to push through the "parental responsibility law" that allows parents to be charged if their child commits a crime: from underage smoking to burglary to drinking (the legal age is 21 in Oregon) to breaking curfew.

Barry Krisberg of the US National Council on Crime and Delinquency calls this "country club criminology", the kind of thing that "sounds good in the suburbs". You don't have to be Bill Clinton or Tony Blair to figure out there are a lot of votes there. It may be good politics but it cannot be good law to set a standard for parenthood. The dangers - and hypocrisy - are there for all who want to see.

Jack Straw might be interested to talk to Anita Beck - a Silverton mum whose 14-year-old son stole a bottle of cologne from a Silverton chemist. Months later she was in court, fighting the law on constitutional grounds.

"I'm a firm mom but I try to stay loving about it," she said. She had given up her full-time job to spend more time with her children and after the shoplifting organised a family counselling session. (Who among you readers would have done the same? Would you be judged a good, or a bad, parent?) In the end, Anita Beck was found not guilty of failing to supervise her son but the entire town knows her business now. It may not be a witch hunt but it is too close for comfort when the law is used as the judicial equivalent of the twitching curtain.

Others have had the decision go the other way. Among the 20 or so cases so far are the likes of Carely Brock, whose 16-year-old son was caught smoking a cigarette, and Oscar Perez, whose son was found with marijuana. In their cases justice meant a court order to attend parenting classes, but should such classes be a punishment?

The idea of parental responsibility has spread like wildfire and Silverton has received faxes and requests for information from all over the world. Last year alone some 10 states (including Oregon) enacted similar laws. The toughest is Louisiana's, where a parent can be jailed for six months if a child associates with a felon, drug dealer or street gang. In West Virginia you can be fined $5,000 if your child is a graffiti vandal; in Tennessee and Maryland parents can be taken to court if their children skip school.

The motivation for such social legislation has a familiar, Jack Straw ring. "I don't like this, but I'm tired of driving the streets at one in the morning seeing young kids hanging out," said Mike Lehman, a state legislator in Oregon. "Somebody's got to set the guidelines." The laws have critics - mostly criminal justice experts and constitutional lawyers - but they also seem to have the support of a middle America that yearns desperately for the good old days.

The figures - which are just now being put together in places like Silverton - are good. Year on year there has been a 38 per cent drop in the more serious crimes committed by juveniles. Less dramatic was a small drop in vandalism but arrests for shoplifting are down 30 per cent. This is the kind of thing that makes politicians drool.

On the street corners of Silverton there is no shortage of wannabe juvenile delinquents. They shift from foot to foot, their shorts as baggy as can be, their baseball caps firmly turned round the wrong way. These are hardly hardened criminals (one saunters out of the public library, clutching a thriller) but they know a thing or two about the odd cigarette, the bottle of beer, the shoplifted tape, the late-night get-together.

They talk with the wild bluster of the young. The parental responsibility law is a farce, they say, though they enjoy using it to threaten their mothers and fathers. But they are more careful about being caught and say that this is why crime figures are dropping. They worry that grown- ups may not realise this: "This is a test case. I mean, they're testing us for the whole world."

If not the world, then certainly Britain. But Silverton is not Britain. It is the epitome of small-town America and nothing illustrates that more than the Norman Rockwell mural that looms above its municipal car park. Don't be fooled, there is nothing cosy about the parental responsibility law: it gives the police and courts a huge amount of power. Not only does it seek to police "parenting", it allows the state to define the meaning of a good parent. Maybe the worst indictment is that it does nothing to help those children who most need help or guidance - the ones whose parents don't give a damn no matter what any law says.

Curfews are the thin end of the wedge. Either you think Big Brother knows best or you don't. Silverton has made its choice but Jack Straw and New Labour should think again.