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Orange County | Dana Parsons

It's Been a Century of Progress, Except in How We Care for Kids

April 21, 2002|Dana Parsons

At least the 12-year-old Irvine girl is alive and could testify. So is the 15-year-old Yorba Linda boy. In the grand scheme of things, you'd almost have to call them lucky.

That's much more than we can say for baby Christopher, the brain-damaged infant who doctors say won't recover. His father, accused of causing the injuries, waits in Orange County Jail to see what charges he'll face, which depend on whether the boy lives or dies.

The Irvine girl is in protective custody after police allege that she's been kept out of school and used as a housemaid for a wealthy family. The Yorba Linda boy also is in protective custody while his parents await charges that they physically and emotionally mistreated him.

It'd be one thing if I'd plucked these cases out of the archives of crime. Instead, all were in the local news last week.

If nothing else, then, the cases provide a measuring stick for how far we've come in the last 100 years.

It was the turn of the century (the 20th, not the 21st) when someone in New York City wanted to aid an aggrieved child. Unfortunately, the child's advocate couldn't find any legal precedent for doing so. Ever imaginative, apparently, she invoked cruelty-to-animals laws as her precedent and was allowed in the case.

I got that story from Harold LaFlamme, an Orange County attorney for children's rights. LaFlamme was miffed that he couldn't remember the specifics of the New York case, but says it became the legal launching pad for protecting children in court.

"There was no other statute the person could use," he says. "There wasn't any statute saying you can't beat a child, you can't sell a child out for labor. I can't remember that child's plight, but it was bad. So she used the animal-cruelty statute to justify intervention and protect the child."

That's appalling, but we could take solace in knowing that was 1900. Very primitive era, yes?

But what about today, when authorities say the father of the family kept the 12-year-old Egyptian girl from attending school, fixed up a "room" for her in the garage and used her as a servant. The family disputes that she was kept in involuntary servitude, but doesn't deny the girl wasn't attending school.

In the Yorba Linda case, prosecutors say the parents' idea of disciplining their son crossed into felony territory. They're accused of punching him, forcing him to sleep outside on several occasions and of taking nude photos of him.

The parents of the Yorba Linda boy are a sheriff's deputy and a public school administrator. I'm in the camp that says parents get a wide berth in disciplining their children, but if the allegations are true, the couple needs some serious intervention.

As for 71/2-month-old baby Christopher, he's apparently taken all the punishment he'll ever get. His mother wants to withdraw his life support, but his father still has legal rights and is balking, no doubt to forestall the possibility of murder charges.

LaFlamme represents the young Egyptian girl and baby Christopher. His nine-member law firm handles many of Orange County's child-advocacy cases, and that makes me wonder how the guy sleeps at night--given everything he's seen.

Last week notwithstanding, LaFlamme says, "Things are pretty good and getting better" when it comes to children's legal rights. One example: more and more judges are assigning lawyers to children in family-custody disputes, instead of confining legal help to the battling parents.

If you could make a wish, I ask LaFlamme ...

"One of the things I've pushed for but never gotten," he says, "is that I'd like the government to make it a rule or law, if you will, that you have to take a course in parenting before you can graduate from high school."

What, and replace trigonometry? Outrageous.

What's really outrageous is how horribly inept some adults are when it comes to caring for children.

How far have we come since 1900, when children were lumped in with house pets?

At this pace, I'd say we'll be in great shape in another century or so.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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