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O.C. Agency Report Urges Change in Teen Wedding Policy

September 07, 1996|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A confidential draft report of the Orange County Social Services Agency says it should stop recommending to Juvenile Court judges that pregnant adolescent girls under its protection be allowed to marry their adult male sex partners.

Responding to the controversy surrounding the agency's handling of these underage girls--who otherwise might be treated as the victims of rape or child abuse and kept away from the men--an agency task force has recommended that such unions be decided solely by the juvenile courts.

The draft report makes no judgment whether the marriages are an appropriate solution to what the agency's director calls an "impossible social dilemma" that has stirred debate among local police, prosecutors and the agency's social workers.

Judy Tanasse, the assistant director of social services who is heading the ongoing review, declined to comment on the task force's draft report, saying the findings are still preliminary.

"It's a rough document and could change," she said.

According to the report, which was obtained by The Times, social workers should only provide information on the teenager, the man and their relationship to the juvenile court judges.

The information gathered by social workers should cover the minor's relationship with the man, the minor's relationship with her parents and the adult's employment and criminal history, according to the task force's recommendation.

"It does not seem appropriate for this agency to recommend marriage, but it is certainly within the rights of the bench to authorize marriage," the task force members found. "If all parties wish to marry, [social workers] will indicate such in court reports, along with a complete description of variables indicated in the [social services report]. No recommendation for marriage will be made."

The proposed policy would effectively forbid a practice that has been followed over the past two years by a certain group of social workers who helped some underage girls marry or resume living with their adult partners, instead of treating the girls as victims of child abuse or statutory rape.

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Social workers have been struggling with the ethical and legal dilemmas presented by pregnant teenagers who want to continue relationships with older men. In one case in July, a pregnant 13-year-old girl was married to her 20-year-old boyfriend.

The practice has divided social workers and prompted the internal review.

"There is a range of opinions about appropriate interventions regarding these cases," task force members wrote in their five-page report. "The discussion appears to polarize from 'Don't bother, because police do nothing, and the minor wants to be in this relationship' to 'We should thoroughly investigate, and never recommend marriage.' "

"One approach is justified based on an interpretation of the cultural standards for the majority of the [Latino] population presenting this particular situation and the belief that police won't investigate these cases anyway."

"The other belief is that it is illegal and unethical for our agency to be involved in any way that supports or expedites the minor mothers marrying the adult 'perpetrators.' The belief is that if our agency supports marriage, police will be reluctant to cooperate in future investigations if they believe our agency will 'facilitate' marriages," the draft report states.

The task force investigated 15 cases from the past two years in which social workers grappled with the issue of reunifying the minor with the adult.

Because 14 of the 15 girls were Latinas, some social workers said the arrangements merely reflected the "cultural" mores of Mexico, where some insisted, erroneously, that the age of consent was 12 years. Others rejected such notions, and have charged in internal memos that the agency's approach smacked of "racism."

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The task force did not detail the specific recommendations made by the social workers in each case.

Such recommendations could include: recommending marriage or recommending that the county's protection of the minor be ended so a marriage could take place.

The report noted that "about seven [minors] were released by the court with full knowledge of [a] pending marriage. . . . in about six cases, the minors were released to relatives and in some of those cases, the records indicate the minor did marry the adult."

In one case, which the task force said "created quite a stir" a 17-year-old girl was allowed to resume living with the man who impregnated her. He also happened to be her stepfather, and was married to her mother at the time he made her pregnant.

The task force also investigated a related issue on how social workers, police, educators and medical professionals should handle cases of minors having sex with adults, regardless of whether they are pregnant. Task force members found that child abuse laws and criminal laws on that issue do not agree, according to the report.

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