Thursday, April 29, 1999

City keeps parent liability law


Moms, dads join kids in court

BY LISA DONOVAN and HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fighting. Stealing a bike. Stealing a blank check. In a year, Brian Cotton, 17, of Madisonville earned the three strikes that landed him and his mother in trouble.

        Shirley Cotton, the teen's mother, was cited under a 2-year-old temporary parental responsibility law made permanent Wednesday by Cincinnati City Council. The ordinance is in the same vein as a proposal offered by President Clinton this week: hold parents liable for crimes committed by their children.

        The president's proposal came one week after two students opened fire in their Colorado high school, killing 12 classmates and a teacher.

        While Ms. Cotton thinks it's a good idea for parents to share some culpability in their child's misdeeds, she is cautious about holding them 100 percent accountable.

        In fact, she feels for the parents of the youths who went on the killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

        “You can't blame the parent,” she said. “They were probably just as shocked as I was when they told me my son broke into a store.”

        “I think some of the responsibility should be placed on the kid,” she said.

        She said her son was obedient at home — making curfew and even doing chores — but when he was out of the house, trouble began.

        The Cincinnati law, authored by Councilman Phil Heimlich, makes it illegal for parents or others with custody of anyone under 18 not to supervise them. The ordinance has primarily been enforced after the child has committed three juvenile crimes within two years, according to a city report.

        The law cites “reasonable controls” to prevent a child from committing such crimes as vandalism, theft or assault.

        “This isn't the hardened criminal,” said Cincinnati Police Capt. David Ratliff, commander of the youth services section.

        Parents can choose to take a parenting class in lieu of a fine and community service, something Capt. Ratliff said conveys a simple message to parents and their children: “What can we do to help you?”

        But Withrow High School Principal Dennis Matthews said the events in Colorado point to the need to penalize the parent with jail time, not just a fine and community service.

        “These kids (in Colorado) had been building bombs for a year and exploding them, and the parents are not aware?” Mr. Matthews said. “I'm looking at other kids up there (in Colorado) — their lives are messed up ... because the parents didn't take time to know what's going on.”

        According to data gathered during the Cincinnati ordinance's two-year trial period:

        • Twenty-one complaints were filed in 1997 and 82 in 1998.

        • Many parents opted for a parenting class in lieu of a $250 fine for the first offense, including Ms. Cotton, who said the classes “help.”

        • Juvenile part two crimes, which include misdemeanor offenses such as thefts and disorderly conduct, were up 0.8 percent in 1998 from 1997. The parental responsibility ordinance was designed to address such crimes.

        • As of December 1998, only five youths have reportedly committed new crimes after their parents were cited and completed a parenting course.

        The “Raising Great Kids” parenting program is administered through the nonprofit Family Service of the Cincinnati Area. Parents discuss everything from from praising and hugging their children to discipline.

        Council voted 8-1 Wednesday to make the parental responsibility law permanent. Todd Portune was the only council member who voted against it.

        “A law that arbitrarily makes decisions about who is and who is not a good parent is a bad law,” said Mr. Portune, who opposed the parental responsibility law when it was first passed in 1997.

        Mr. Portune said that “obviously, parents are responsible for their children” but he thinks it is “a step too far to impose criminal penalties on parents.”

        Councilwoman Minette Cooper opposed the parental responsibility ordinance when it came up two years ago, but voted Wednesday to make it permanent, saying the pilot program had proven the effectiveness of the law.

        “It would be a bad message for this council to be sending to say that parents should not be responsible for the actions of their children,” Ms. Cooper said.

        Brian Cotton wasn't so much interested in the politics of the matter, he's just sorry for getting in to trouble, and doubly remorseful for getting his mother involved.

        “I wasn't trying to get her in trouble,” he said.

        Ms. Cotton is in the midst of taking her 13-week parenting course. She said Brian was found guilty, under juvenile laws, and has completed community service work and paid court costs and fines for the offenses.

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