To Be Absolutely Frank

Come and Get Me, Coppertone

Is jail the place to learn good parenting?

By 8.30.02

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The next time a parent threatens to "tan the hide" of an unruly child, he'd better do so out of hearing of the police. They might suspect him of planning a trip to the beach.

At a fair in Ohio earlier this month, a county sheriff spotted three small children with signs of severe sunburn, and immediately did what any responsible officer of the law would do: he arrested the children's mother.

"If I ignore this and something happens, then shame on me," the sheriff told the press afterwards. "There was no sunscreen or nothing on those children."

Unable to raise $15,000 for bail, the mother spent eight days behind bars. Now she's being tried for child endangerment, and facing up to six more months in jail.

Leaving three babies out in the sun so long that their skin starts to blister is terribly negligent, given what most of us know about skin cancer. Maybe the woman was ignorant, or maybe she was callously reckless.

But how could it not occur to anyone -- if not to the sheriff, then to the judge who set the bail -- that an abrupt, eight-day separation from their mother might harm the infants at least as badly as lack of sunscreen?

Two of the children were ten-month old twins. Even if their mother wasn't nursing, the sudden lack of physical contact must have been traumatic for them. It may have been worse for their two-year-old sister, big enough to recognize that mommy was being taken away.

This is obviously an extreme case, which is why it made the papers. Maybe the county is pressing charges (one misdemeanor count, reduced from the original three felony counts) merely to improve its bargaining position in the inevitable lawsuit settlement. Yet the actions of the authorities in this case typify a mentality which all parents, even those scrupulous about their children's health, ought to fear.

In 15 U.S. states, according to Britain's Independent newspaper, "separated spouses have lost custody of their children because of their smoking habits." Last March a judge in Utica, New York, ended a boy's compulsory visits to his mother because she was a smoker -- even though she never lit up in the boy's presence -- and warned her to quit if she wanted to see him again.

The idea that an outsider can decide on someone's fitness as a mother based on any isolated factor is arrogant, inhumane and foolish. As if even a patently unhealthy habit can make all a parent's other qualities irrelevant.

Smoking, drinking, letting the kids sit too close to the TV ... The "It Takes a Village" school of child rearing would have government social workers visiting people's homes to prevent such abuses, ostensibly through "education," but unmistakably with the power of the state to coerce the incorrigible.

Is it hard to imagine that the social workers' purview would sooner or later extend beyond a child's physical health to take in his psychological and cultural health, too? In that case, there'd be no limit to possible interference.

Suppose a father likes to take his son to Nation of Islam or Ku Klux Klan rallies. You will agree (I hope) that this is loathsome. But would you presume to break up that family and put the kid in foster care? I feel sure that courts will soon be taking such matters into account in deciding whether parents have a right to raise their children. If they haven't started doing so already.

Maybe I'm overreacting. I hope so. But I suspect there would be much more alarming press about this prospect if the people who write newspapers and produce newscasts felt that they could ever lose parental autonomy themselves. Not only do most journalists share the middle-class values of enlightened parenting, they also feel cushioned against government power.

People who lose custody of their kids because they smoke, or end up in jail because they didn't think to use sunscreen, are not professionals. They're the kind of people who can't scrape together $15,000 bail. But they might be on the front lines of a struggle that will eventually involve many more.

Last week in this space I indulged in a rant against the wretchedness of service in Europe, and particularly in Italy. One sympathetic reader wrote in to ask: "How on earth can Mr. Rocca abide Europe?"

A fair question, and one of these days I should set out some of the reasons, starting with food, that I'm glad to live where I do. For now I'll just say that jailing a mother for letting her kids get sunburned is something most Italians wouldn't be able to comprehend, much less approve of. This is one area in which I hope Italy never catches up with the States.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.