Most states require a parent to care for a minor child up to the ripe old age of 18, some even longer. Yet, when it comes to the obligations of a child to a parent, it’s not exactly a level playing field. This is particularly true in the case of addiction where, in most instances, parents CANNOT make a child go to drug treatment if he or she refuses.
‘What? How can that be?’ you might wonder. In a usual scenario, we have a parent who suspects their underage kid is on drugs because of poor behavior, bad grades or general apathy. The parent starts out as supportive and understanding but makes no progress as the child continues to back-slide. Perhaps there’s a complaint from the principal or an incident with police. I have a personal friend who sadly went down this route as things continued to get worse. He finally laid down an ultimatum on ‘treatment or else’, only to find out it was nothing more than a toothless threat. He was frustrated beyond belief. There was nothing he could legally do, short of a court order for civil commitment (more on that below), to make his child attend treatment.
One Pennsylvania State Representative was confronted with this problem through a family friend and took aim to do something about it. Marcia Hahn, a Republican from Northampton, proposed legislation to amend a 1972 law called the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Control Act, expressly stating that a parent’s “yes” trumps a child’s “no”. “If you are a minor,” she stated, “the parent is responsible for you, and I think the parents should have a say.” James Turner, a County Drug and Alcohol Services administrator, weighed in by noting that drug abuse is far more common among teens than people realize. Out of the 800-900 behavioral incidents in his county’s schools, nearly 40% involved drugs or alcohol. The average student age in these incidents? Only 14. He admits that he’s sometimes even seen middle school kids say “no” to treatment as broken-hearted parents look on in disbelief. The situation is a nightmare.
I’m sure most of us weren’t even aware this was an issue. Despite law to the contrary, society typically expects a parent to ‘control’ his or her problem child. Yet, the law does not afford a parent the option to always do so. There seems to be a huge disconnect. I am sure the laws were well-intended at the time they were written, protecting the interests of children. The times, however, ‘are a changing’. Research has demonstrated that 90% of addicts began their substance abuse as a teen or younger, and that the majority of those who meet criteria for a substance use disorder in their lifetime, started using substances during adolescence and met the criteria by age 20-25. Our modern understanding of the disease of addiction demands a different approach and balance of interests than was proper in 1972.
Many States, like Florida, already allow for a more aggressive stance on the issue. With laws like the Baker Act, for people who pose a threat to themselves or others (excluding addiction and alcoholism) and the Marchman Act, specifically for people suffering from substance use disorders, there is the possibility of civil commitment for minors. In fact, involuntary commitment is on the rise, having almost doubled between 2003 and 2015. However, laws like these are rigid, demand extreme pro-action by parents and require the hiring of an attorney, which can be expensive. Moreover, once the ball is set in motion, it’s tough to turn back if parents have second thoughts. Keep an eye out for a future “How To” article on this subject.
As the saying goes “drastic times call for drastic measures”. I am in favor of liberal parenting, as much as the next person, but it must be moderated by responsibility. A parent has numerous obligations stemming from playing that role. It’s only fair that the States equally give parents the means by which they can fulfill their responsibilities without the necessity of resorting to extreme measures. After all, we are talking about providing for the best interests of the child. Who’s in a better position to make that decision – the doting, caring parent, or the drug-impaired teen chasing emancipation in the form of the next high?