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If Kids Get in Trouble, Parents May Feel Heat

Laws proliferate to hold parents accountable for misdeeds of children - and courts so far back them up.

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As America struggles to find solutions to teen crime, parents of young lawbreakers are increasingly being forced to pay the price.

In Lake County, Ill., for example, parents fork out $10 a night to cover jail costs for wayward offspring. In Boston, three poor families are paying with an eviction from public housing.

This growing effort to drive down youth crime by holding parents more accountable for their children prompts a sigh of relief in many quarters. But others raise concerns that the crackdown is unfair, targeted at poor, struggling families caught between the demand that parents work and the need to closely supervise their teenagers.

To Carol and Lawrence Berry, class and equity are major players in a saga now unfolding in South Boston. They awoke on a chill December morning to news that their son, Keith, was apparently involved in an ugly late-night fracas. The incident, in which Keith and some friends allegedly beat up two Hispanic women and threw bottles into a Hispanic family's home, was being called a hate crime.

As a result, the Boston Housing Authority is seeking to evict the family from its tiny public-housing apartment - and a state appeals judge on Friday refused to delay the eviction of the Berrys and two other families. Now, as the Berrys take their increasingly high-profile plea to a higher court, their case may begin to define a tougher standard for parental responsibility in America.

"Parents have always had a civil responsibility - that if my kid throws a rock through your window, I have to pay for it," says Mary Fairchild of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But there's a new trend toward giving courts the power to make parents themselves pay for kids' crimes."

Seventeen states hold now parents criminally liable for the deeds of their kids. In California, parents can face one year in jail and a $2,500 fine for failing to supervise their kids.

FAILURE to keep a close watch on Keith is what got the Berrys in trouble. The housing authority is invoking a federal "one-strike-and-you're-out" law designed to rid America's housing projects of drugs and racism. Authorities say they are battling a history of violence and racism in the city's troubled housing complex.

But the Berrys had little warning. Keith had no criminal record. He volunteered at the local church.


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