MAYOR OTIS Johnson seems puzzled a lot lately. No wonder. Johnson thought a trip to China by city officials was a wonderful idea, but the trip came under fire by aldermen and residents alike.
Then came the Parental Support and Responsibility Ordinance. The ordinance was given its first reading at the Savannah City Council’s Nov. 20 meeting, and Johnson obviously thinks it’s a good idea.
But, to his puzzlement, the ordinance immediately came under fire. “For years and years and years, we’ve continually heard complaints about parents who are not doing what they’re supposed to do,” Johnson told the council. “Now that we’re trying to help these parents, we’re already hearing from the doom sayers.”
A member of the audience was first to question the proposed ordinance. “My parents did everything they could and it didn’t matter,” he said, pointing out that if the ordinance had been in place 20 years ago, his parents could have faced charges for a situation that was his fault, not theirs.
City Manager Michael Brown, who helped craft the ordinance, shares the mayor’s enthusiasm for it. The ordinance was developed after several meetings with school officials, law enforcement, advocacy groups and others concerned about the issue, he said.
Brown said the man’s story demonstrates the need for the ordinance. “He makes a very heartfelt and valid point,” Brown said. “But this is a parental support ordinance. It will not in any way target parents who are trying to do their jobs. We’re targeting parents who aren’t trying.”
Brown said parental responsibility ordinances have been enacted in cities across the country. However, those ordinances tend to be punitive in nature.
Savannah’s ordinance wouldn’t work that way, Brown said. “If parents can make the case that they are making a diligent effort, they’re not going to be charged,” he said. “They’re going to get the help they need. This is not the stereotypical parental responsibility ordinance that labels children as failures, that labels parents.”
Brown said a case management approach to determine if the system has helped children or failed them will be used. “It’s not intended to be punitive,” he said. “But there are many parents who haven’t made a diligent effort. They’ve washed their hands of the child far too early in the process.”
The purpose of the ordinance is to identify children who aren’t complying with probation or remediation programs, then determine if the parents are trying to help the child, or instead are contributing to the problems. Brown said those parents would be steered towards counseling, parenting classes or agencies that could offer support.
Alderman Tony Thomas said some juvenile criminals are on the streets because they’ve been suspended or expelled from school.
“How is the ordinance going to account for them?” he asked. “A lot of the kids getting into trouble are ones being put out of school. It’s a shame law enforcement can’t get information about the children from the schools when we have all this chaos going on.”
Kris Rice, director of the Coastal Children’s Advocacy Center, questions the city’s ability to provide the services required by the ordinance. She told the council she supports the ordinance, but said many programs in the city are underfunded or overwhelmed by heavy case loads.
“My concern is that the person who has stepped in will be penalized when it’s the parent who should be penalized,” she said.
“We don’t have a functioning mental health system in this community. You can’t offer services you don’t have,” Rice said.
“Some kids get in trouble at school, so they get home-schooled. The regulations are too lax in Georgia. You only have to have a high school diploma or a GED to teach your children at home.”
Home-school children are required to have just 4.5 hours a day in lessons, Rice said. She said the ordinance should be extended to apply to those children as well.
Affordability of services is another concern, Rice said. Not all services are free. “If a child has a history of abuse or violence, then we will see them for free (at the Child Advocacy Center),” she said.
Brown said the city is aware of the lack of services. “The case management system has to be sophisticated enough to recognize who is accountable,” he said. “But if we have children with mental health problems, how can we charge the parent with negative support?
We have to look at alternative education, Brown said. “What do you do when a child is so disruptive in the classroom setting? You don’t need that child on the streets.”
Even with issues that will have to be resolved, Brown said the city needs to go ahead with the ordinance. “It’s not liberal, it’s not conservative, it’s a very progressive approach,” he said.
The mayor said the problem isn’t a lack of services.
“It’s the effectiveness of what we have,” he said, adding that some services should be consolidated.
Alderman Cliffton Jones said he doesn’t think parents should be held responsible for the actions of a child. If the child is old enough to make a decision to do something wrong, the child should be held accountable for those actions, he said.
“I think the problem with being a trailblazer is there’s no template to follow,” Alderman Van Johnson said. “We are really treading water here. We know young people who are not engaged get into trouble,” he said. “We know children who are not engaged have children. This ordinance is a step in the right direction.” cs
The ordinance will get its second reading on Dec. 4, at which time the council is expected to vote on it.
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