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Get an Adult on the Case

February 12, 2003

Something is out of kilter when a father best known for biting the head off a bat is ahead of child welfare agencies in saying that someone ought to look into a 44-year-old naif who publicly professes a fondness for sleeping with children. The media frenzy over Michael Jackson was embarrassing even before Ozzy Osbourne weighed in on television Monday. The sad silliness does raise a serious question, however, about our culture's grasp of the term "responsible adult behavior."

We live at a time when soccer coaches undergo background checks and teachers know better than to go anywhere alone with a child, let alone offer hugs of encouragement. So why aren't social workers storming the gates of Neverland, the Santa Ynez Valley compound owned by the multimillionaire superstar, who has in recent months dangled his baby off a balcony and admitted to wrapping a newborn in a towel and whisking her home before nurses had a chance to clean her?

The TV special everyone is still talking about, "Living With Michael Jackson," portrayed him as a gentle, creative spirit, despite his tacky taste in expensive tchotchkes. But the childlike charm of a middle-aged man who climbs a favorite tree fades when he defiantly admits he has shared his bed with "many children."

Jackson denies any molestation, says the kids always ask first to sleep in his bed, that he's simply tucking them in, giving them story time and showing them love and that he always gets the permission of their parents first.

Even taken at face value, his remarks reveal an alarming absence of prudence, especially considering that a decade ago a 13-year-old boy accused him of molestation. Jackson sees that lack of standard adult judgment as part of his childlike, creative nature. Fine, but not if he wants to be responsible for children. A sense of limits is what separates adults from kids.

Who knows what goes on at Jackson's after iffy parents drop off their kids? This TV special, heavy on innuendo and light on candor by Jackson, never makes that clear. What is clear is that Santa Barbara County's child welfare authorities need to fulfill society's adult responsibilities and scrutinize Jackson. They need to make sure that he is in no way harming the true innocents in this ongoing story -- his own children and vulnerable visitors three or more decades younger than their soft-spoken host.

At the very least, social workers could teach him the proper method for cradling a baby's head during bottle-feeding and better ways to protect children from paparazzi than insisting they wear masks. Maybe they can bring the Osbournes along as models of relatively responsible parenting.

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