... but the state is a dangerous parent

Either you think Big Brother knows best for your children or you don't, says Ann Treneman

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick