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If Children Take Parents to the Police

September 14, 1986|Diane Johnson | Diane Johnson is a novelist, critic and screenwriter.

SAN FRANCISCO — Deanna Young, age 13, of Tustin, was the first Southern Californian to turn in her parents for drug use, carrying $2,800 worth of cocaine and marijuana from home to the police station. Last week, an unidentified 11-year-old girl in Los Angeles went to school authorities and the police because her parents were growing marijuana in the backyard. The American war against drugs advances on several fronts, now including the American family.

Amid dozens of still-unanswered questions about loyalty, duty and morality, a legal decision has been made in the Young case: Deanna and her parents may live together. Orange County Judge David O. Carter last week dismissed a Social Services petition charging that Robert and Judith Young are unfit parents.

When Deanna went to the authorities, many parents reacted with revulsion: How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless child. Others applauded. The incident was widely reported, festooned with unwritten and unspoken asterisks implying its significance. Before she took action, Deanna had attended a drug lecture by a deputy sheriff at her church. Everyone, including the law-enforcement officials concerned and the movie agents who homed in immediately after, was made, by their own testimony, uncomfortable with the events, but without quite knowing why. People had to ask themselves how they were supposed to feel about a child turning in her own parents. What are we coming to? What does it mean?

The most negative reaction has been to call Deanna a little snitch. The situation reminded some people of Nazi Germany, where kids were encouraged to inform on their parents. The Big Brother overtones and fascist undertones were frightening.

The ironies were also uncomfortable. Deanna was the one who was first placed in custody, at a juvenile hall, while her parents were released, on their own recognizance. Was the child being protected against the potential vengeance of infuriated parents or was she being punished by cops and judges, themselves parents, for telling on her folks? We don't know many of the most important things --the degree of concern, sincerity or rage in Deanna's heart, whether the parents were hardened dope abusers or just Sunday users, whether they were frequent dope dealers or just sometime suppliers. The parents are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 23 to make their pleas.

Meanwhile, there is one obvious difference between what Deanna did and children who deliver their parents over for political wrong-think: Her concern was drugs, illegal but also dangerous. She said she was doing it to protect them and get them off drugs because they wouldn't stop on their own. It was "for their own good."

That is exactly the way parents have long justified punishing children, and, occasionally, turning them in to police-- an act by a despairing but often caring adult. Society usually more or less sympathizes with and approves of such parental behavior. The idea is that the law or the army or some other authority will take over the task of correcting the incorrigible when all parental measures fail. You sometimes hear parents who have tolerated and endured their children's drug use or delinquency decide it would have been better to have demonstrated their solidarity with society's values, token or not, by getting help from the system. There's a widespread belief that parental firmness and lack of ambivalence on such matters as drugs would discourage drug use. Why not the reverse? The reversal of roles is what has interested the representatives of Hollywood, who have reportedly besieged Deanna for film rights to her story.

In this day of situational ethics, nobody talks about which family and individual loyalties must be regarded as superior to which others, or to which abstractions, like country or religion, and which country or religion.

Does the relation of dependency qualify our moral beliefs? Do we feel that it's all right for the powerful (parents) to appeal to still higher authorities but wrong for the dependent to turn on her protectors? This belief is tacit in the case of women--wives of criminals, say, who are encouraged to remain loyal to their husbands, even excused from testifying against them, as if they had no moral obligations to society (or God, or other "higher" system of morality). This has always seemed to me as if it would be confusing to the children in such families.

Consider the Dan White family, for instance. His wife made conjugal visits, even conceived a child with an imprisoned murderer. What were their other children told? That Dad was sick? That Mom approved of Dad's violence? Or that it didn't matter what Mom thought, that, being married, she had no obligation to independent moral judgment and no higher loyalty than to Dad? That she was a lesser moral being?

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