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NYRA’s Testimony before DC Human Services Committee

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Jul 05, 2007

The DC City Council is back at it again, this time it is a bill introduced by Councilmember Wells which would hold parents responsible if their kids (13 and under) are out after 10 p.m. unsupervised.  After the curfew extension got defeated this is a change of tactics to achieve a similar result.  But under this system parents will be assumed to be negligent if their kids are out after 10 and child protective services will open an investigation of them which could lead to taking the kids away.

Most of the people testifying that day opposed this bill, and they had plenty of good arguments and statistics making the case that this bill is harmful to youth, damaging to families and could end up burdening low income families the most.  I tried to cover an argument no one else was addressing.  Enjoy:

I believe we need to really examine some fundamental questions in this discussion.  To really decide what is or is not good parenting, we need to decide what makes a good person.  How do we define a good citizen?  How do we define a good human being?  For much of American history we have included some notion of independence, self-reliance and responsibility into that definition.  We judge a person to be an adult when they are competently able to make responsible decisions and manage their affairs sensibly.  Those individuals who do not make responsible decisions are the true reason we are here today discussing the safety of youth.  The lack of a safe, stable, and healthy environment stems – at some point – from people not behaving as responsible parents, citizens and community members.

Therefore the goal of parenting is to raise children to be self-reliant, responsible adults.  This bill is detrimental to that objective.

Good parenting involves teaching kids to make good choices, not simply constraining the choices they are allowed to make.  It is a grave error to assume that sheltering youth from the world will better prepare them for it.

Becoming a responsible person depends on the freedom to make choices for oneself and learn from ones mistakes.  The degree of freedom one needs and the scale of mistakes one can make depends entirely on the individual and their capacity and situation.  It is impossible for those of us sitting in this council chamber to make such a determination about every young person in the District.  Those most qualified to decide how much freedom and responsibility a young person should have are those who know him or her best – the parents.

I can entirely conceive of instances where it is appropriate, safe, and beneficial for a young person of perhaps 10 or 11 to be out late at night.  When I was growing up back in Michigan I would sometimes have a friend or two sleep over and we would stay up all night.  It wasn’t uncommon for us to walk a few blocks down to 7-11 and buy Slurpees at 1 or 2 in the morning.  There was nothing reckless or dangerous about this.

My parents knew me far better than my city council did and made the appropriate decision to allow me to make these occasional trips.  Not only did I not fall victim to a horrible crime at the 7-11, but this bit of independence helped me develop into the adult I am today.

I agree with Councilmember Wells that there is little sense in treating kids indoors radically differently than kids outdoors.  I strongly disagree however with the idea that youth need to be under adult supervision at all times.  It is simple-minded to assume parenting involves a binary choice between constant supervision and negligence.  The golden mean is somewhere between both extremes.  Constant supervision is harmful to a young person’s growth, independence and ability to make good choices.  It does little to prepare a person for adulthood when they have to rely on themselves as there will not be supervision over them at all times.

A person who only makes good choices out of fear of punishment is a morally stunted individual.  When that person believes they won’t get caught they won’t have any reason to hold back.  That is a surer path to chaos than allowing youth outside after 10 p.m.

There is no question our streets and neighborhoods aren’t always safe, but that recognition should drive us to making them safe, not placing innocent youth under house arrest or taking them away from their parents.  To do so would be a shameful case of punishing and blaming the victim of crime instead of seeking to address the root problem of crime.  If there is a high rate of rape in a city it is neither just nor sensible to require women stay in their homes or force them to divorce their husbands who allowed them outside.  Such attitudes are common in Saudi Arabia, but they have no place here in America.

In any event, this bill does not target the time when most young people are at risk.  According to FBI crime statistics, youth are at most risk of being victims of crime between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.  This bill targets a time where young people are actually considerably safer to be outside than earlier in the day.

The National Youth Rights Association opposes this bill, but if Councilmember Wells is serious about specifically keeping young children out of harms way, we could accept a compromise where a 10 p.m. curfew (or referral to CFSA or another method) would be imposed on youth under 14, and the curfew would be removed altogether from young people aged 14 and up.

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