Posed with his little sister in the portrait on the living room wall, the youngster has blondish curls and cherubic cheeks that accent a disarming smile and engaging blue eyes.
For the mother, the image jumps out from another place, from what seems a lifetime ago when she thought she, her husband and two children were the all-American family.
Things are different today.
“I hate to say it, but my son is a liar, a thief and a drug addict,” said the mother. “Four years ago, I would have denied there would ever have been a prayer in the world of this happening to us. But it could happen to any family at any time.”
The mother recalled the son who went out of his way to help his parents, to be a good older brother to his sister. She recalled the popular middle school honor roll student who was well-liked by both his teachers and classmates.
But then, she said, the son started hanging around a different group of friends, a pack of children she knew little about. The boy’s attitude went sour. He began cursing and yelling at his parents. He refused to take out the trash or clean up his room, and would sneak out of the house at all hours of the night.
“He literally went to pot,” she said, referring to the marijuana she discovered her son was smoking.
The parents sought help from teachers and family counselors, but the boy continued to drift away until two years ago, at the age of 14, he ran away from home.
What’s worse, according to his mother, is that at that point a system of laws and agencies in Maine designed to protect abused and abandoned children only served to impede her and her husband’s efforts to help their son.
She pointed at the Shaw House in Bangor as a prime example of where parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit collide dramatically with a child’s right to be safe from physical and emotional abuse.
Haven or hideout?
State-licensed shelters such as the Shaw House offer runaways and homeless children safe haven — food, clothes, showers, television and a bed. They also refer their young charges to a variety of other local agencies where the youths can obtain support, counseling, even Medicaid and food stamps.
Many of the parents of homeless or runaway teen-agers will grudgingly admit that such shelters play an important role in the protection of children on the street. But they suggest that such programs should be aimed at children with serious mental health issues or histories of physical and-or sexual abuses.
Several parents called the Bangor Daily News about their frustrations following a series of articles published in mid-September concerning the growing number of homeless youths and the various agencies available to help them.
“Many of these children are homeless because they choose to be homeless,” said one mother. She said shelters such as the Shaw House offer nothing but a free ride, a place devoid of rules and regulations that govern a child’s growing up.
The parents criticized the Shaw House for allowing clients to come and go as they please at all hours of the day or night, for welcoming children while they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and for not forcing the children to undergo counseling or rehabilitation.
“They make it too easy for just any child to run away and have a place to go,” said a father whose daughter has been staying at the Shaw House since last spring.
The executive director of the Shaw House admits that her facility is “child-centered” and can be very frustrating to parents. But, she adds, her facility is not the problem.
“No kid that I know of has run away because the Shaw House exists,” said Michaela McCarthy, the shelter’s director. “They’re running away from problems at home — whatever those problems might be.”
The facility is not designed to be a therapeutic or rehabilitation center, she said. First and foremost, the shelter exists for the safety of children. A child can stay at the shelter as long as 29 straight days. If the child finds other accommodations for one night and then returns, he can remain for another 29 days. Shelter staff can only refer clients to appropriate local agencies for counseling or assistance, but cannot force them to go.
Once a child enters the Shaw House, he is given 72 hours to call home to tell his parents where he is. If parents call the Shaw House within those first three days to find out if their child is there, the staff will not put the child on the phone or even acknowledge that the child is there without that child’s permission. McCarthy said to do otherwise would only jeopardize any trust the staff is trying to build with the youths. If after 72 hours the child has not phoned home, a staff member will contact the parents.
Parents can then request a meeting with their child at the facility — something Shaw House officials strongly advocate.
“We’ve leaned on kids pretty hard to meet with their parents,” McCarthy said. “What we can’t do is make the kids cooperate.”
Some parents, though, have denied either of these things happening.
“They told me that the first priority of the Shaw House is to get the child back to the family, but nobody has ever contacted me,” said one mother.
“They wouldn’t even let me in the door,” said a father.
McCarthy denied the accusations.
“That’s untrue, period,” she said. She denied turning away parents, save perhaps for the irate, out-of-control parents who have shown up demanding to take back their children.
“We let them in and we let the child know the parent is here. Our conference room is open 24 hours a day. We can’t make the children go. The parents can’t make them go,” said McCarthy. “We’re not anti-family or anti-parent. We’re a child-centered agency. We try hard not to be anything more.”
The father of a 16-year-old girl who ran away to the Shaw House before turning up missing for a few weeks blames the Shaw House for her disappearance. He explained that his daughter became a regular at the shelter, where she met other runaways who convinced her to leave town with them.
Eventually, Lewiston police officers found the girl living in that city in a “flop house” with a group of people in their 20s.
“She smelled pretty bad,” her father said days after his daughter returned home. “But I think she wants to live a normal life. I think she had this fantasy where she was going to go out, get a job, have her own place, her own car. I think she pretty much hit awfully close to bottom.
“Nothing is going to change until the runaway laws are changed,” he said. “If you opened up 10 more Shaw Houses, it would increase the numbers of homeless teen-agers. The runaway laws in the state of Maine are the worst in the country.”
Law handcuffs parents
In July 1978, the state of Maine enacted a well-intentioned law to address the needs of runaway juveniles. It states:
“If the juvenile refuses to return home and is under the age of 16 years, and if no other living arrangements agreeable to the juvenile and to the parent, guardian or custodian can be made, an intake worker shall offer the juvenile shelter in a licensed emergency shelter facility, licensed group home, or licensed foster home which is located as close as possible to the residence of the parent, guardian or custodian. The intake worker shall also refer the minor and his family to the Department of Human Services for a family services need assessment.”
But according to police and officials with the state Department of Human Services, one of the most frustrating parts of the law and its application is that runaways cannot be forced to return home or to seek counseling or drug rehabili- tation.
According to Detective Sgt. Ward Gagner of the Bangor Police Department, the department’s juvenile officer, a runaway, once found, can only be held by police for six hours.
If the child refuses to return home, police will contact DHS to report the situation.
But the child can also refuse to work with DHS, according to Shawn Yardley, DHS’ regional program director for child and family services.
“Then what you have is a 16-year-old who has said [buzz off] to everybody and can render the powers of the police and the state totally impotent,” Yardley said. “That’s the real world.”
Paul Weeks, a Bangor attorney who has tried to help many parents of runaways, says the state’s laws simply do not give parents ways to help their children.
He said parents basically have three options.
They can try to get their child blue-papered, or committed, to a facility where the child can get some help for whatever problems they are dealing with. To be blue-papered by a judge, however, the parents must prove that the child presents a serious danger to himself or others.
It takes a lot to prove someone a threat to themselves, according to Weeks.
“A person standing on the edge of a bridge is going to be blue-papered,” he said. “A person talking about standing on the end of a bridge is not.”
Even if a youngster is blue-papered because of some act committed in a fit of anger or during an alcohol-induced stupor, once that child has calmed down and is back under control, he may be released within 24 hours.
Another option, said Weeks, is for the parents to wait until the child commits a crime. While various agencies may provide necessities, some children end up stealing to get drugs or other items such as that leather jacket or new CD they’ve been wanting.
Depending on the crime, the youth can be sent to the Maine Youth Center for rehabilitation or be remanded to the custody of an adult. In either case, the court is likely to order some form of counseling as part of the sentence.
McCarthy, of the Shaw House, has said the criminal justice system could actually be a last resort “which saves the lives of some of these kids.”
The third choice, Weeks said tongue-in-cheek, is for parents to lock their child up in his room — “but then, the Department of Human Services will be after you.”
“It’s a very frustrating position for a parent to be in because there is really nothing they have the power to do,” Weeks said. “There are no easy answers. There are no answers, I’m afraid.”
Highlighting the differences between laws in some states, one mother whose family recently moved to Maine related a story of how she had put her daughter in a hospital in Florida because of her mental health problems. The daughter, who had run away on a handful of occasions only to return home because of a lack of options, responded well to treatment and returned to the family.
The woman’s husband then accepted a job transfer and the family moved to Maine. Within one week of moving here about a year ago, the daughter, then 15 years old, ran away. She went to the Shaw House and flatly refused to return home. Nobody could make her return.
“When we moved up here, we knew nothing about the laws,” the girl’s mother said. “If we had known, we never would have moved up here. We knew we had problems, but why go into the lion’s den? That’s what we did.”
Eventually, the girl left the state to be with an ex-boyfriend in Georgia. Now 16, she lives with her boyfriend in Texas, where they just became parents of a baby girl.
State Rep. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, remembers the family turning to her for guidance.
“They begged DHS to take her into custody because that way at least somebody would be in charge of her,” Plowman said. “But, as a minor, this girl had incredible options available to her — Medicaid and food stamps — to allow her to survive and to thumb her nose at her parents.”
Plowman acknowledged that lawmakers in Augusta are beginning to realize the problem the laws have created. Over the last 20 years, the children’s rights issue has turned into a monster, she said.
“I think we’re encouraging teens to leave home,” she said. “We’re hearing from more and more parents who are concerned because we’re taking the control away from them.”
Yet another mother of a runaway complained to Plowman about having to sign medical consent forms for her daughter so she could be treated at Eastern Maine Medical Center. The law still made the parent responsible for her daughter’s well-being, but she wasn’t allowed to see her teen-age daughter because the girl didn’t want to see her.
“Why are we cutting parents out of the process?” asked Plowman. “Other states are maintaining parental control. I can’t imagine I’d sit well with just one phone call a night saying, `I’m at the shelter. I’m staying here tonight.”‘
Parents’ rights a national issue
Despite Plowman’s assertion, other states are also having problems addressing the issue.
Cases in Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, Massachusetts, Georgia and Washington were cited by U.S. Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., last month when he introduced the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act.
Testifying on behalf of his bill before the House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 26, the freshman congressman said the parental rights act “is needed because the government is using its coercive force to dictate values, offend the religious and moral beliefs of families, and restrict the freedoms of families to live as they choose.”
Among the examples of intrusion Largent cited was a Supreme Court of Washington ruling that it was not a violation of parental rights to remove a child from her family because she objected to their “reasonable rules which were reasonably enforced.”
He went on to explain that the parents had grounded their eighth-grade daughter because she wished to smoke marijuana and sleep with her boyfriend. She objected, and the court removed her from the home, said Largent.
The congressman’s bill, and a parallel bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, reaffirm Supreme Court rulings that it is a fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Both bills state that right includes providing for education, making health care decisions, disciplining the child — including reasonable corporal punishment — and providing for religious teaching. Governments would have to show a “compelling interest” to interfere.
But Democrats and others who questioned the need for Largent’s bill suggested it could have the unintended effect of protecting child abusers.
During the hearing in October, the Democrats brought out Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, who told the panel that she had been sexually abused by her father.
“Do not make it more difficult than it already is for child-protection services,” she pleaded.
The bill remains in committee where a vote has yet to be taken.
A call to Largent’s Washington office earlier this month prompted an aide to state, “History is really on our side because what’s best for children is to have parents to care for them and to love them.”
The legislative assistant, Paul Webster, added, “What our law says is, if there is a conflict between the states and parents, parents should win out.”
Addressing the future
Meanwhile, back in Maine, Rep. Plowman said she is going to look into the possibility of introducing legislation in December 1996. Before then she hopes to form task groups and committees to study the problem and determine how best to change the system.
“We really do need to look at it, but it needs a whole bunch of input,” Plowman said. “It’s a very time-consuming process.”
In the meantime, the Shaw House’s McCarthy said she is hoping to find more money to introduce other services such as counseling at the facility.
“We would like to do more,” she said. “It’s an issue of services being available. We would love to bring a family therapist in here.”
Another answer, according to DHS’ Yardley, is for parents to try to head off the problem before it even begins.
“The long-term way to fix it is to offer help to the parents beforehand, perhaps offer some sort of parental training,” he said. “We have to make it OK to say parenting is a tough job. It’s going to sound Pollyannish, but you just have to be ready for the child.”
For her part, the mother who admitted that her son is a liar, thief and drug addict is taking a totally different approach to parenting her younger daughter.
She is more involved in the girl’s school life, is volunteering at the school, and keeping tabs on the youngster through her teachers. The mother is also making more of an effort to get to know her daughter’s friends and their parents.
She also hasn’t given up on her son, who is now back home under a court order after getting caught selling marijuana to other youths.
“We’re just taking it in baby steps,” she said. “We’re just holding our breath.”