It all started with Deanna Young, 13, who walked into the Tustin Police Department in Orange County, Calif, last month carrying a white kitchen trash bag. The bag contained $2,800 worth of cocaine, some marijuana and drug paraphernalia that Deanna had collected from her parents’ bedroom. Police arrested her father, Bobby, a bartender, and her mother, Judith, a court clerk, and removed Deanna to a facility for abused children. This week Bobby and Judith Young will be arraigned on charges of possessing cocaine.
Deanna is back home with her parents now, but the repercussions of her actions have reached far beyond the Young household, as a number of other children, some influenced by press coverage of her story, have joined her as foot soldiers in the nation’s antidrug campaign by turning in their drug-using parents to police:
•On the first day of school, an 11-year-old sixth-grader in L.A. told the school policeman that her parents smoked marijuana and had some growing in the backyard. Undercover narcotics agents went to the girl’s home and found a 3½-foot marijuana plant. Ironically, the girl’s stepfather, musician Andre Ray, had given an anti-drug concert at the school last year. The district attorney chose not to file charges.
•Kimberly Bernal’s grandmother told her to call the police if she ever saw her parents using drugs. On Aug. 29, the 12-year-old phoned Fremont, Calif. police and said her parents were in their house “doing cocaine.” The police found no cocaine, but they say they did discover some psychedelic mushrooms, a half gram of methamphetamine, 1.8 grams of marijuana, some 200 partly smoked marijuana cigarettes and a few plants in the backyard. Kimberly’s parents were charged with drug possession.
•Jeremy Bump, 13, of Speed, Ind. phoned the Clark County Sheriff’s Department and expressed concern that his father and stepmother sometimes smoked marijuana. Mickey and Connie Bump now face misdemeanor charges of possessing 26 grams of pot.
•A 13-year-old boy called the sheriff’s office in Silver City, N.Mex. When Cpl. Robert Renteria arrived, the boy and his 10-year-old sibling showed him a black metal box on the dresser in their parents’ bedroom that apparently contained marijuana. No charges were filed. “They were real good parents and had warned their children about the dangers of drugs,” said Lt. Dan Dunagan. “I guess they just hadn’t been following their own advice.”
At a time when the country is being ravaged by a drug epidemic, the questions are exquisitely difficult: Do the children’s actions represent a hopeful step toward a healthier, drug-free America, or do they threaten the sanctity of home and family, values at the very foundation of American society? Is the help a parent might receive as a result of his or her child’s intervention worth the risk of breaking up the family?
Some experts find the roots of the dilemma in a new generation gap that has widened as parents, members of the ’60s generation, give their children conflicting messages on authority and drug use. Says Ron Levant, 43, an associate clinical professor of counseling psychology at Boston University: “We grew up in an era of unprecedented prosperity, the go-go years of the ’60s. We experimented with everything—drugs, sex. We broke all the rules. The current generation of kids is shaped by incredible fear not only of nuclear war but also of the economy. They are scared to death. They see their parents using drugs and they panic.”
It’s no accident that the children who have turned their parents in for drug use have all been between the ages of 11 and 13, according to adolescent-psychology expert David Elkind, 55, author of The Hurried Child. “This is a time when kids are thinking in a new key and constructing ideals for the first time,” he says. “It’s very common for kids to be hypercritical of their parents during this stage because they do not measure up to the ideal.” Dr. Warren Reich, 54, professor of medical ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says, “Many, but not all, children are emotionally prepared” to act on such judgments of their parents. Professor Levant disagrees: “For a child to be forced into parental responsibility is psychologically damaging to the child because he or she then becomes a parent to the parents.”
Some children may not be able to foresee the legal and practical ramifications of calling the police. “They might not realize that their actions could result in being separated from their parents for a long period of time and that they might become wards of the state,” says criminologist Jerome Skolnick, 55, of the University of California at Berkeley. Deanna Young, for example, reportedly bridled at being kept from her parents during her nine days in a youth facility. “She was insisting on going home from the beginning,” says her parents’ attorney, Gary Proctor. “Deanna never understood the sequence of events that would unfold when she did what she did.”
Psychologists and law enforcement officers generally agree that a child of drug-using parents should go to the police only as a last resort. Unfortunately, however, many children can find nowhere else to go. One exception is at West Bloomfield High School, north of Detroit, where Al Dicken, 35, runs “concerned persons groups” for about 40 students. The persons they’re concerned about are usually their parents. “Just by getting the kids together,” says Dicken, “it helps them realize that their parent has a disease—that he or she is not a bad person but a sick one. That takes a tremendous load off the kids.” Where no such programs exist, experts suggest that kids try to talk to parents first, and if that fails, to turn to relatives, a minister, rabbi, priest, teacher or doctor.
“If we can develop a system in this country that responds to the needs of a family where the parents are using drugs, then it might be appropriate for children to turn in their parents,” says Toledo, Ohio, juvenile court judge Andy Devine, 65. “But until we do, I would not encourage children to do that. It can only destroy the family.” That children even think about informing on parents demonstrates society’s negligence, says Devine: “It shows what a desperate point we are at when children feel the only way they can get help for their parents is to have them arrested.”
—Written by Montgomery Brower from bureau reports