Tuesday, April 04, 2000

Choosing sides in the Mason teen sex case

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As a matter of policy, when there are sides to be taken, I try to take the side of the child.

        There are six children in this case — three on each side. The mother of one of them wants to talk. She scoots into the booth at the Bob Evans Restaurant in Mason. A small woman in an aqua and white checked shirt. The soft flesh around her eyes looks swollen. First, she says, she wants to get the “ground rules straight.” She won't discuss the facts of the case against her son.

        So, here is what I already know. Her boy, who is 13, is charged with sexual battery and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Two other boys, ages 14 and 13, have been charged with rape, sexual battery and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. They are, of course, minor children themselves.

        They are accused of sexually assaulting three 14-year-old female Mason Middle School classmates.

        This woman's son was sent back to jail when authorities said he telephoned one of the girls after he was released from detention the first time. When we talked, her son was still in jail, awaiting a hearing. She is madder than a hornet. Tired. Scared.

Cell phone records
        She is carrying a sheaf of papers. Evidence, she says. She has notes. A time line, a receipt for a pizza. She pulls out a music book, “Folksinger's Guitar Course.” It was the only piece of paper she could lay her hands on when she got somebody at AirTouch Cellular to give her a list of phone calls made on the day her son was supposed to have made the call that landed him back in jail.

        The family was moving that day, and their new house did not have phone service. “The only phones around were mine and my husband's cell phones. There were no records of a call to the girl's house,” she says.

        Later that day — last Thursday — her son was released. That night, she says, he “slept on a pallet at the foot of our bed.” The boy spent a total of 11 days and 10 nights in jail. His parents were allowed to see him three times, for 25 minutes each time.

        “You can't imagine what it's like to see your child come shuffling into the room, head down, wearing one of those orange things.” Those orange things are jail garb, and, no, I cannot imagine how she feels.

        Although I am trying.

Her son's voice
        As a woman — and the mother of a girl child — I found it easier to imagine what it might be like to accuse someone of a crime like this and then run the risk of seeing him in the cafeteria. Or standing next to my locker in the hallway.

        At first, the boys were detained, then they were allowed to return to school. Now, because of a later agreement, the teens are being tutored at home, awaiting trial. It was either that or jail.

        “My son deserves to have a voice in this,” his mother says.

        There have been plenty of other voices. A magistrate. A judge. Prosecutors. Lawyers. Radio talk show callers. Neighbors who are willing to be quoted on the news, guessing about guilt or innocence. Editorial opinions. Taking sides.

        The woman, the mother who wants to be her son's voice, tells me she worries about what this will do to “the rest of his life.”

        I liked her a lot. But I don't know what I can do for her, besides listen. I don't know what happened in that house on March 11.

        Everybody has hired lawyers. The courts will sort it out in the next few months. Meanwhile, every news outlet has been careful not to use the names of the juveniles involved. But I'll bet nearly every student at Mason Middle School knows who they are. My guess is that kids there have opinions. They probably bring home a lot of juicy rumors, too.

        These are children — all of them. Not just in the eyes of the law. Not just in theory. But as we all understand the term — not mature. The kind of people we don't trust to drive a car yet. Or to smoke a cigarette. Or drink a beer. I hope the adults in this community are mature enough to take the side of the children here.

        Every child.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com