That was before what started as a routine argument escalated into a shouting match between Juarez and her 15-year-old son.
“He just lost control,” Juarez remembered. “He was screaming and cussing and throwing his weight around, slamming doors and then coming back at me. He just wouldn’t let it go.”
Juarez, who had recently divorced, was raising her son and 5-year-old daughter alone. At the time of the argument, she didn’t know where else to turn. Trembling, with her son still shouting from his bedroom, Juarez grabbed the phone and called the Anniston Police Department.
The officer helped get the situation under control. Though he only stayed for a few minutes and no charges were filed, Juarez was thankful. Having a police officer standing in his living room got her son’s attention.
“I couldn’t believe she actually called the cops on me,” said the now 17-year-old. “But it worked. It was a real wake-up call. I don’t know why, but I’d just gotten so mad. I wasn’t thinking straight. All I wanted was to get out of that house.
“Still … my mom didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”
Calls from parents to the Anniston Police Department and surrounding departments are an increasingly common occurrence, said Capt. Shane Denham of the Anniston Police Department.
“You would be surprised at the number of calls we get,” said the 15-year veteran. “It’s almost on a weekly basis, running the gamut of problems.”
Whether it’s shouting matches, threats of violence or running away, problems with drugs, refusal to listen, skipping school or simply disobeying the rules, parents often turn to the police when they don’t know where else to turn. It’s a decision that, at least according to the law, leaves the police officers themselves with few options.
Police officers cannot take children to jail simply because their parents are having problems controlling their behavior. And more often than not, it’s the parents who are to blame, hoping that, having reached the end of their rope, someone else can do what they cannot, Denham said.
“What we deal with mostly are parents who’ve done a crappy job, and they want us to come in and fix a problem in 10 minutes that they’ve spent 10 years creating,” he said. “It’s not our job to be parents. (Children) are your responsibility. We can’t just take them away when parents can’t deal with them anymore.”
Save for an obvious threat of violence or law-breaking, most police officers end up serving as literal officers of the peace.
“We usually just talk our way through it,” Denham said. “Our goal is to get the kids to obey their parents, and 99 percent of the time it works.”
As with Juarez’s son, just seeing a police officer makes the situation more real.
“What helps is the presence of an authority figure,” Denham said. “The uniform, that natural apprehension on a kid’s part, so they know this isn’t just another one of the empty threats like Mom or Dad has made in the past.
“The kids don’t know what we can and can’t do, so we use that to our advantage.”
Piedmont Chief of Police Steven Tidwell estimates calls from parents represent less than 1 percent of his department’s total call volume. When such calls do come in, they’re dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
First the officer on the scene must determine whether a criminal act has taken place or if any eminent danger exists.
Once that assessment is made, the officer will often try to serve as a mediator between parent and child. If that doesn’t work, there are other options.
“They may determine that it is in the best interest of all parties to temporarily remove the child from the home, either through consent of the parties – typically by having the child stay with a relative – or through Department of Human Resources involvement,” Tidwell explained. “Officers will also give the parents information on programs and services provided by the Juvenile Probation Office and other entities that specialize in these situations.”
Though such “scare tactics” can serve to get the child’s attention and improve behavior, it’s been Chief Tidwell’s experience that such behavior is too deeply ingrained to last.
“More frequently, the child’s behavior is part of a pattern that has likely already involved incidents which required intervention by authority figures such as police officers or school officials,” he said. “In those cases, this tactic is ineffective.”
If a child’s behavior causes them to be a threat to themselves or someone else, parents are encouraged to call the police, said Lyndsey Gillam, executive director of Calhoun County’s Family Links, which provides support services for area youth, teens and parents.
“Sometimes, it’s the best thing to do when parents don’t know what else to do,” Gillam said. “Kids need to learn the legal consequences that can come from violent, self-destructive behavior. It won’t ruin their lives, but they might learn a lesson that’ll last a lifetime.”
When Trina Jacob’s 15-year-old daughter, Stephanie, ran away for the first time last year, she wasn’t too worried. They’d had a fight about her grades, and she just needed to “let off some steam.”
Four hours later, when Stephanie finally came home, Jacob was too relieved to be angry. Then it happened again … and again.
“That was how she got my attention,” Jacob said. “She’d run away, and I’d worry.”
Jacob would usually ride around the neighborhood, calling for her daughter. But then, about eight months ago, after Stephanie had bolted out the door yet again, Jacob called the police.
“The look on her face … that made it all too real,” Jacob remembered, adding that Stephanie hasn’t run away since. “I’d threatened to do it, but she never really thought that I would.”
When an underage child runs away from home, Denham suggests that parents call the police, “even if they know where their child has gone,” in order to create legal documentation of an existing behavior and get children entered into the juvenile legal system. Such situations also give officers who arrive on the scene more “enforcement power.”
“As long as they’re under 18, they don’t have a choice where they’re physically located,” Denham said. “If Mommy or Daddy says they’ve got to come home, we’ll do whatever it takes to get them there. We can put our hands on them, put them in the patrol car and take them home – whether they want to be there or not.”
‘They become like strangers’
Angela Forbus, the guidance counselor at White Plains Middle School, has a favorite analogy that she shares with concerned parents. It was handed down to Forbus by a good friend with a teenaged daughter:
At age 13, the mother said, the daughter seemingly moved out. Someone slept in her bed and ate at her place at the dinner table, but the child that the mother had known for so many years was gone, replaced by a stranger. Then one day, around age 17, the stranger left and her child came back.
“It’s so true,” Forbus said with a knowing laugh. “One day they’re your normal little boy or little girl, then the next day they want to be all grown up, and you’re the one getting in their way.”
Such obstacles lead teenagers to feelings of anger, alienation, frustration, confusion and resentment. They want to be grown-ups, trusted and respected, to be responsible and allowed boundless freedom – freedoms that cannot be allowed given their penchant for erratic, irresponsible and occasionally dangerous behavior.
Teenagers are enduring immeasurable changes, and these emotional upheavals often cause them to lash out at the very people who want to protect them most – their parents.
“Teenagers are insane,” said Wendy Hillstead of Anniston, a mother of five children, ages 13 to 20. “Raising them takes every bit of patience and understanding a parent has … and some they don’t.”
Though Hillstead has never called the police, she and her husband have tried just about everything else to keep them in line.
“Nothing can prepare you for the challenges of raising a teenager,” she said. “Parents of teenagers have to commiserate with each other, because nobody else can understand what it’s like. And if you try and talk about it with people who either don’t have kids or don’t have teenagers, they’ll think you’re the worst parents in the world.”
Tips for parents and teens
Among the various programs offered through Family Links is the Parent Project, a 10-week class for parents who want to learn how to better understand and deal with their teenagers. “Weathering the maelstrom of the teenage years is difficult for parents as well as the children, but as elementary as it sounds, communication is the key to survival,” said Gillam.
“Often, talking to your teen really involves hearing more of what they’re trying to say,” she said. “Parents too often want to convince their children that they are right, as if the fight can be won. But it just doesn’t work.
“There’s no point in arguing. Nothing will get accomplished. Listen, stay calm, and be there for them. Those are the most important things a parent can do.”
Added Forbus: “Don’t set your sights too high.” The relationship between parents and teens is often contentious, so when it comes to having open lines of communication, it’s best to be realistic.
“If you tell your child that Thursday night is going to be Family Night – sitting all warm and cozy around the sofa, popping popcorn, roasting marshmallows over the fire and talking about the family – good luck,” she said. “They’re going to look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
“These things can’t be planned. Talk whenever the opportunity comes, and when it does, make the most of it.”
Chief Tidwell suggests parents stay involved in their children’s lives by knowing who their friends are, who they’re talking to and what they’re doing with their cell phones and on the Internet. Parents can also encourage children to participate in after-school activities, especially those that require structure and discipline.
“Parents should establish boundaries for behavior and follow through with discipline for poor behavior as well as rewards for good behavior,” he said. “As a parent, I myself understand how difficult it can be.”
Also, parents must not buy into the myth that their children can even be controlled. “If they could,” Gillam said, “there would be no teen pregnancy, no gangs or drug abuse.”
What parents can do is influence and encourage their children to do the right thing. Just like parents work for a paycheck in order to afford nice things, teenagers are motivated by their possessions and privileges: iPods, cell phones, video games, hanging out with friends, freedom in general. All can quickly disappear.
“Parents can then use those things to motivate their children,” Gillam said. “When those things are gone, it can make a real difference in how teenagers view their situation at home. Suddenly things don’t look so bad.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about the Family Links program, visit, www.familylinksonline.org or call 256-820-5911.