Children and Parents Under the Law
By A. D. Freudenheim

2 April 2001

Actions in the aftermath of the recent string of shootings at high schools throughout the country - shootings of children by children - reflect some of the odd and problematic ways in which American society handles issues of responsibility, and in particular how irregular are American laws and the American sense of justice.

A story appeared in the news this week about members of an Atlanta church, the "House of Prayer," lead by the Reverend Arthur Allen Jr.[1] Allen and some of his parishioners are accused of beating their children severely as punishment for misbehaving, leaving large welts and open wounds; it was the wounds on one child in particular that tipped off Georgia's child welfare workers. Allen and his parishioners are also alleged to have forced young women to be disciplined in sessions at the church, making them partially disrobe in front of the congregation in the process, and to have married off girls as young as fourteen in order, as Allen said, to prevent them from becoming "whores." All of this has allegedly been done in the name of the Bible, which Reverend Allen and his parishioners believe provides them with the crucial instructions they need on how to raise their children.

In this case, Sanford Jones, the Chief Judge of the Atlanta juvenile court, took appropriate action. According to the published reports, he offered the parents temporary custody of their children, provided that they agreed to refrain from abusing them. When the parents refused, citing their right to "raise our children according to the Bible," Jones responded that "the Good Lord isn't deciding whether you get your kids back here. I am." His answer, direct and to the point, makes it clear that as a judge he considers the matter to be not only earthly, but one in which the parents themselves are responsible for their actions, and that they must answer to the court - and thus, our society as a whole - for those events.

Contrast this to some of the recent school shootings, where the call for justice - let's call it the burden of justice - seems to rest almost solely with the children who have committed these violent acts. In California, Pennsylvania, and many other states, the issue of whether or not to try these children as "adults" is either prescribed by law, or desired by a preponderance of public opinion. In fact, a recent study shows that 49% of Americans want children who commit violent acts to be charged as adults and to be subjected to the kind of punishment meted out to convicted adult criminals.[2]

The adults themselves, however, are getting away with murder, because the laws covering the negligent actions of those responsible for underage children seem not to be well enforced. In the case of the 5 March shooting in Santee, California, Jeff Williams - the father of 15-year-old Charles Williams, the accused - expressed his sorrow at the murders committed by his son, and the general harm he caused. And yet, Jeff Williams is free to express that sorrow in the most literal sense, because he will not be charged with any crime, even though it was his gun that was used by his son.[3]

Similarly, in Colorado, the parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, presumably wounded enough by the loss of their murderous and suicidal sons in April 1999, apparently faced only civil suits, not criminal ones, in the aftermath of their children's actions. While the man who provided them with the guns, 22-year-old Mark Manes, was sentenced to six years in jail, the parents themselves were not charged; in fact, Eric Harris' parents even asked to be granted immunity from criminal prosecution before offering to cooperate with the police investigation. (The request was denied.)[4]

It is tempting to view these stories in the context of arguments about the need for greater gun control or the evils of certain brands of fundamentalist Christianity, but this would miss the point. Gun control is clearly important, as is negotiating the lines between what kinds of behaviors our society will tolerate as part of religious free expression. More to the point, however, parents or other adults who facilitate children becoming murderers should face charges equivalent to those they would face had they actually pulled the trigger. Parents who own a gun that a child (even a teen-ager) can use without their supervision are not just negligent - they are criminally negligent.

American society can attempt to further impose its legal will on children by passing laws outlawing bullying, such as the one in Colorado[5], or by treating a child as an adult and imposing a lengthy jail sentence, which may make society feel better for having someone to hold responsible. There is no doubt that children who commit criminal acts should be punished. But they should not be punished in a way that misses the point of defining them as children - as "underage," as "minors," and thus as having limited rights and responsibilities - in the first place. We need to stop treating our children like adults and our adults like children. Instead, we need to start enforcing the laws we already have - and writing the ones we don't - that place more of the responsibility for criminal children on the shoulders of their parents. Even Reverend Allen acknowledges that "When the child is an adolescent, they are not able to think for themselves how to conduct themselves. So a parent has to be an authority. Someone with a mature mind. You have to have rules."[6] Presumably then he also accepts that parents, as the authority, should be held responsible when that authority is abused, as is alleged in the case before the court in Atlanta.

[1]Information about and quotes from this case were taken from the following two articles: "41 Children Put in Foster Care After Church-Sponsored Beatings," filed by the Associated Press, 29 March 2001; "Child Abuse at a Church Creates a Stir in Atlanta," by David Firestone, The New York Times, 30 March 2001.
[2]"Americans Want Child Criminals Sentenced As Kids," by Gail Appleson, Law Correspondent, Reuters, 28 March 2001.
[3]"Father of Accused Calif. Shooter Says He Is Sorry, Reuters, 16 March 2001.
[4]"Columbine shooter's parents ask for immunity," contributed to by correspondents Charles Zewe and Tony Clark, CNN, 1 May 1999.
[5]"Colorado Set to Pass School Bullying Law," contributed to by correspondents Miriam Hernandez and Karla Davis,, 19 March 2001.
[6]From The New York Times; see note 1 above.
Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.