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Town Tries to Police the Parents

Like other communities, St. Clair Shores, Mich., responded to increasing teen crime by passing a 'parental-responsibility' ordinance. But the first prosecution is raising troubling questions.


ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. — Where the hell are the parents? It shouldn't be like this, Police Detective Jack McFadzen told himself. It didn't used to be like this. Not where he grew up.

McFadzen, search warrant in hand, was standing in the Provenzano home, a neat wood-frame house nestled on a quiet cul-de-sac in this suburb north of Detroit. He was standing, to be precise, in the attic bedroom of the Provenzanos' 16-year-old son. To the St. Clair Shores police sergeant, this boy's room looked atrocious.

The black-painted walls and psychedelic posters he could endure, even if they did make the room resemble a dope house. Kids have to express themselves, after all. But the marijuana roaches, the open beer bottles, the absolute unkempt filth--those he could not condone. Nor could he condone what else he saw.

In the last week, there had been three late-night burglaries at St. Isaac Jogues Church, just down the street from the Provenzano home. Checks, candy and $3,500 in cash donations had been stolen. Here, in the Provenzano boy's bedroom, McFadzen's eyes now rested on part of the booty.

At the detective's side, Anthony Provenzano, the boy's father, stared in disbelief. He didn't know, he said. He didn't realize.

McFadzen studied this father. Provenzano, 47, worked as a cook at a nearby restaurant. To the detective, he appeared a meek and mild man. An even-tempered, soft-spoken man, inclined toward the paths of least resistance. A man who'd lost control of his son.

McFadzen had been seeing more and more situations like this one. Parents looking the other way while their teenagers mouthed off, fought, violated curfew, abused drugs. Parents expecting the schools to pick up the slack. Parents wanting to be buddies with their kids. The trend disturbed him so much, he'd urged St. Clair Shores, in 1994, to adopt a "parental-responsibility" ordinance.

That the City Council had done, readily. St. Clair Shores' ordinance spelled out a detailed list of "parental duties," as well as penalties--including jail time--for parents who "have failed to act responsibly and reasonably in the supervision of their minor children."

They'd never enforced the ordinance, though. Doing so, after all, would raise all sorts of tricky issues. How to define good parenting? How to compel it by statute? Was there really such a thing as parental malfeasance?

Maybe, McFadzen reasoned, it was time to find out.

So began what promises to be an uncommon test for an increasingly popular type of statute.

Dozens of communities, and 10 states, have adopted parental-responsibility ordinances in recent years. Usually, authorities threaten parents with these measures, rather than punish them. When they are enforced, parents almost always settle rather than fight. The Provenzanos, however, have opted for a jury trial.

On May 6, as a result, 12 of their fellow citizens will be asked to decide a difficult question indeed: Can one suburban town, struggling to hold the line against delinquency and disarray, pull up a chair at the family table? Can St. Clair Shores dictate how parents rear their children?

McFadzen looks forward to that day. "This one," he said, "is a textbook test case."

Transitional Time for Working-Class Town

There is something misleading about this town's slogan as the "boating capital of Michigan." St. Clair Shores, population 68,000, undeniably does have six large marinas, and it certainly is perched on the bank of Lake St. Clair. Few of its citizens own yachts, though. They sell them and service them, and cater to those who use them. St. Clair Shores is blue collar, working class, almost entirely white. Manufacturing and retail trade are by far the greatest sources of employment. Almost a quarter of the town's citizens lack a high school diploma; 80% don't have a college degree. The average price for a home is $83,000.

What St. Clair Shores can offer, in place of affluence and high culture, is a sense of order.

Jack McFadzen, now 48, felt restored when he moved his family here in 1977. After a tour of duty in the Detroit Police Department's tough 5th Precinct--watching toddlers in diapers run loose on the street, watching infants made orphans by their moms' gun-happy boyfriends--he finally felt back in his own environment. St. Clair Shores reminded him of Roseville, another Detroit suburb, where he grew up in the years after World War II. Kids being kids, parents being parents; just like in his father's home, where he learned respect and boundaries. An occasional scuffle at a Burger King was all McFadzen faced in his early years with the St. Clair Shores Police Department.

Then, gradually, starting in the mid-1980s, conditions began to change. It was a transitional time for the entire region, as for communities across the nation. Slow growth, combined with a declining and aging population, created some of the problems. But so did the shrinking average household size: St. Clair Shores suddenly had a growing number of single-parent homes.

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