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Courts, Conscience Put Parents on Trial

THE old public service announcement - ``It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?'' - once served as a gentle reminder of parental responsibility. But what began as a nudge on the elbow is turning into handcuffs on the wrist as judges and lawmakers redefine ``responsibility.'' For parents of the '90s, an updated warning could read: ``It's anytime of the day or night. If you don't know where your children are - and what they are doing - you can be fined or jailed for their misdeeds.'' The latest example of this punitive approach to parenthood comes from Boston. City Councilor Bruce Bolling has proposed an ordinance calling for fines of up to $100 and jail sentences of up to 15 days for parents who fail to supervise their children. His ordinance is aimed at young people who are truant, involved in gangs, and using drugs and alcohol.

Mr. Bolling, who is black, represents the city's Roxbury neighborhood, hard hit in recent weeks by a wave of black-on-black murders. His motive is laudable: The black community, he says, must assume responsibility for its own problems.

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But his proposal, similar to laws passed earlier in Detroit and Los Angeles, raises troubling questions for all parents: Where does parental responsibility end? And how many parents, even in stable middle-class homes, can be totally accountable for the actions of their offspring?

Until the late '80s, parental responsibility remained fairly clearcut and primary. Communities shared an assumption that mothers and fathers would nourish and protect their children. The emphasis was on moral responsibility. For many parents, the ultimate terror was being called before a teacher if a child was found wanting academically. For others, public embarrassment didn't extend much beyond making restitution for a neighbor's window broken by a son's or daughter's wayward ball.

Today the chilling new focus is on parents' legal responsibility. A mother stands before the law from the moment of conception. From alcohol and cigarettes to cocaine, a pregnant woman is accountable for her behavior. By one count, more than 60 women across the country have faced prosecution in the past two years for using illegal drugs during pregnancy. Last month a court of appeals in Daytona Beach, Fla., became the first in the nation to uphold the conviction of a woman charged with delivering cocain e to an infant. She has been placed on probation for 15 years.

Prosecutors insist that they do not want to jail these women. Rather, they say their goal is simply to help them deliver drug-free babies. But opponents argue that a criminal record only adds to the problems addicted women face.

Elsewhere in Florida this month, a Nicaraguan father was acquitted of vehicular homicide after his 3-year-old daughter died in an auto accident because she was not in a child-restraint seat. Although prosecutors say they never intended to send the father to prison, they wanted to ``send a message'' to parents.

No one can condone parental neglect. But can public humiliation and the threat of prosecution strengthen parental control, especially in families or neighborhoods already facing overwhelming challenges? Turning parental responsibility into a legal quagmire only plays on the guilt of parents that they haven't done enough.

I recently spent several weeks interviewing parents across the country. From inner-city neighborhoods to wealthy suburbs, one unifying theme echoed through conversations with mothers and fathers: how to protect their children.

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A mother of teenagers in a comfortable Chicago suburb described the sense of ``helplessness'' she and others sometimes experience in the face of outside influences that appear more powerful and less controllable than ever before. ``If we with resources feel this way,'' she added, ``what about people with no resources?'' Another mother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Chicago said, ``We need a protective bubble over us to keep our families safe.''

These words speak of a caring concern that no law can legislate. Parents, just by being parents, cannot escape the deepest accountability to themselves, and their loving consciences are - and should be - the final court of judgment.

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