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Parenting parents 

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