Don't trust your teens? Try putting a tail on 'em

January 05, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

She stopped writing poetry. Obviously there were other signs, but the man was stung by the fact that his 18-year-old daughter had given up something she loved.

His daughter had changed in more literal ways. She was hanging out with youths "from the other side of the tracks," as he said. She was hitting him up for money, and she was always moody. He thought his daughter was stealing. She had to be on drugs, he thought.

The two were beyond talk and trust. So, this 50-year-old professional man from Towson turned to the Yellow Pages.

He wanted to hire someone to spy on his daughter.

Here and nationally, more parents are hiring detectives to conduct weekend surveillance, run background checks on friends and otherwise shadow their teen-agers. Rather than involve the police, parents are paying $50 an hour (plus mileage) for an ex-police officer or ex-FBI agent to sit in a car and shoot a roll of film of their 16-year-old at a party.

The Towson father, who asked that his name be withheld, hired Calvin Hall, who runs the Privateers Detective Agency in Bel Air. "It wasn't desperation. I thought this was a good next step," said the father. "I didn't feel guilty. Trust had been broken on both sides."

He spent about $200 to have the agency run background checks on his daughter's friends last year.

It was the sixth call Mr. Hall had received in 1993 from parents who wanted their children privately investigated. That's six more calls than Mr. Hall had received in the previous seven years he'd been in business.

Spying on teen-agers "is becoming more and more part of an investigator's repertoire," said Brian Luedeck, general manager of the National Association of Investigative Specialists, a 1,100-member industry group based in Texas.

The group surveys investigators nationwide. They report a 25 percent increase since 1992 in the number of parents hiring detectives to follow their children, Mr. Luedeck said.

Who are these parents and what are they afraid of?

Area parents who hire detectives to investigate their children are typically white, educated, upper-middle-class people -- a generalization drawn from interviews with detectives in the Baltimore area.

The parents suspect their children are drinking, taking drugs or having unprotected sex, the detectives said. Fear of AIDS is a leading parental motivation. Detectives said they are most often hired to spy on 16- or 17-year-old daughters.

"They want to know what party their kids are going to, who their friends are. But kids are hard to track. Too many street corners," said Mr. Hall. Many parents ask him to tail their children during spring break at Ocean City, but there are too many teen-agers to follow just one, he added.

"A lot of parents also ask us to tap their phones," Mr. Hall said. He said he declines to do that because recording someone's telephone conversations without permission is against state and federal law.

But buying the equipment to tap a phone is legal and easy. Parents, Mr. Hall said, simply drop by an electronics store and buy the recording equipment for about $25. Then, they install it and record their children's conversations for evidence.

To tell or not to tell

Despite what they might find, many parents do not want their children prosecuted. They just want to verify or refute their instincts and then take it from there, detectives said. And parents typically don't tell their children they hired a private investigator.

"But I told her," said the father in Towson. "I told her it was the only thing I could do. She was pretty angry about it. She felt betrayed."

But his daughter was taking drugs. Heroin and cocaine. Background checks of her friends confirmed they were dealing drugs. She was stealing money from home, her father said. Last fall, she was arrested on a bad check charge.

He wrote a letter to the judge, and now his daughter is in a drug therapy program. She's doing fine, he said. "We have a great deal of hope."

In this case, hiring a private investigator didn't expose his daughter's criminal habits; getting arrested did. So, is hiring a private investigator worth the money?

"You're not getting much for your dollar. Fifty dollars an hour gets very expensive just to baby-sit," said Robert Hoffman of Checkmate Investigative Services in Columbia. "Very few kids have sex or do drugs openly. This will go down in some apartment. You are not going to see anything."

Mr. Hoffman said he discourages many parents from hiring a detective for another reason: What do parents do once they have dirt on their children? Tell them they got the information from a detective?

"You run the risk of alienating your kids for the rest of their lives because this is the most insulting thing you can do to your kids," Mr. Hoffman said.

One detective, Robert Blackburn of Baltimore, told this story: "Recently, some parents called me. They wanted to find their son. He had come home for the holidays, and he wasn't the same. He was a straight-A student, then he drops out of college and leaves.

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