Maybe it's time to place the parents in custody

April 28, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

A WEEK AGO, on a lovely spring night in Baltimore, police from the Southwest District arrested a 12-year-old boy after they saw him sell cocaine -- two sales within 20 minutes -- on Wilhelm Street. The 12-year-old had a lookout helping him. The lookout was a ripe old 19.

Two weeks earlier, a police officer on the other side of the city arrested an 11-year-old boy who allegedly was selling heroin on Lakewood Avenue. A search of the boy's clothing produced $189 and at least six capsules containing heroin. The 11-year-old, who was described as "small for his age," was released to his mother's custody the night of his arrest.

Released to his mother.

Why?

Can we just pause here, in the middle of this ever-flowing river of sadness and madness, and ask the question: Why does a woman get an 11-year-old returned to her care within a few hours of his appearance on the street to sell smack?

Pardon me if this sounds cold, but maybe mama -- and we don't know her name because police don't release the names of juvenile offenders, and therefore their parents, to the public -- should be the one who spends some time in custody.

I know this will sound foreign to some, but an 11-year-old selling heroin at 5:30 p.m. on a spring evening indicates to me a lack of parental supervision -- at least prima facie.

There, I said it!

I raised the old, dusty specter of parental responsibility -- and maybe even parental culpability.

Quite a concept, no?

There's nothing new about kids as young as 11 or 12 holding dope for drug dealers. In May 1988, we had a nameless celebrity in this town -- a true overnight sensation. It was an 8-year-old boy from Booth Street, also in Southwest Baltimore, whom police had arrested after they discovered 14 bags of cocaine in his little black sweat suit.

The boy had been released to his mother on the night of his arrest. (Old habits die hard, don't they?)

I visited the family's rowhouse the next day, and the mother told me all about her little boy -- how, as a child of merely 5, he had witnessed his first drug dealer killing; how the boy's father, also involved in drugs, had been shot to death in 1982; how drug dealers in the boy's neighborhood had given him clothes and money in return for his holding and concealing their dope.

I have been pretty depressed walking away from reporting jobs, but almost never more than on that day 17 springs ago. I wanted to take that kid home with me.

The last I saw of him -- he would be in his 20s today, assuming he's still alive -- he was under the rickety rear porch of the rowhouse, abusing a wounded pigeon, crumbling it like a wad of black-and-white paper in his hands.

The boy's mother, who was then 28, said she was eager to get out of the neighborhood and that she was awaiting a federal housing voucher to afford a new place to live.

I mostly believed her when she said she detested the drug dealers and that she wanted something better for her son. But how could I really know what the truth was? In many places in Baltimore, selling dope is the family business, and, for all I could have known at the time, it might have been on Booth Street, too.

Still, there's a tendency to see the kids as not-so-innocents easily sucked into Baltimore's thriving drug trade when their poor and stressed-out primary caregivers aren't watching.

But I wonder about this. Isn't it possible their parents benefit from having little kids involved in the drug trade?

And I wonder if the cops wonder, or if they have time to wonder.

I ask you: Isn't it in society's interest to intervene when kids are this young, to determine how and why they end up on the street with coke in their pockets? And isn't it in society's interest to hold parents responsible for children under, say, 12 being left to the streets and the drug dealers? Isn't that, at least, a form of reckless endangerment?

Maybe it's time for a prosecutor to make the case against a parent. Perhaps a vicarious crime is no crime at all, but can we consider an exception in the matter of a parent who allows a child as young as 11 to become a criminal?

Attorneys and legal experts surveyed this week seem to agree that parents cannot be convicted for the crimes of their children.

So maybe there needs to be a parent-specific statute -- contributing-to-the-delinquency-of-a-minor taken to full sail.

Of course, there are already some remedies in place, none involving the threat of jail time.

For instance, the state can go to juvenile court and have children declared in need of assistance or in need of supervision. If inclined, the state through the courts can take children away from irresponsible or abusive parents, and maybe that's the worst punishment of all.

And maybe, with that in place, all this talk of criminal punishment for the parent who allows a child to become a drug dealer amounts merely to the frustrated ravings of a columnist who has seen all of this once and again and again -- children sucked into the mad and sad river -- through too many Baltimore springs.

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