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WHO'S THE BOSS?

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Jefferson County didn't take Campbell's children away. But according to Campbell, the agency did continue to hound him. "There was another incident in which my daughter went to school with one of those shirts that had about twenty snaps up the front," he says. "And she was showing off to her friends--`watch what I can do,' she was saying--and she grabbed the bottom of the shirt and zooop, she opened the whole thing up. The school called Social Services and the police. It's idiocy! I never encouraged her to take off her clothes." Campbell shakes his head. "We parents need the presumption of innocence like anyone else in this country," he says.

In fact, parents' rights supporters leaped to the defense last week of James Kelley, an Aurora father charged with child abuse after he gave his 17-year-old son a black eye for allegedly telling a lie. Kelley has said he doesn't believe he did anything wrong; he faces a jury trial in January.

But it's unclear just how--or whether--the Parental Rights Amendment would provide parents who believe they're wrongly accused of child abuse or neglect any legal recourse. That's because the amendment does nothing to lift the statutory immunity that now protects government agencies who are negligent in the performance of their duties. "We need accountability," says Jane Conrad of VOCAL of Colorado Inc. "If the Parental Rights Amendment doesn't provide accountability, what good is it?" Ken Ward, president of Colorado Fathers for Equal Rights, agrees. "We haven't signed on," he says. "Philosophically, it sounds good, but I've learned to take a long, hard look before jumping on."

Even the measure's proponents on both the national and local levels say the PRA won't interfere with the government's ability to investigate and intervene in cases of child abuse and neglect. Republican senator Charles Grassley of Iowa made a point of assuring house judiciary committee members that "child abuse and neglect is a compelling government interest" and that the Farris bill would allow the government to override any fundamental or inalienable right parents might hold with regard to their children.

Greg Erken, Of the People's Virginia-based executive director, is just as adamant on the question. "The Colorado Children's Code defines abuse and neglect," Erken says. "The Coalition for Parental Responsibility does not challenge these definitions, nor is the Parental Rights Amendment intended to weaken or in any way amend this section. It's that simple."

But not everyone is so sure.
George Delaney, director of the Colorado Office of State Planning and Budget, wrote in a November 9 letter to Secretary of State Victoria Buckley that the amendment could "conceivably change the current child welfare system." Because of that, Delaney wrote, he could not complete an assignment from Buckley's office to determine the fiscal impact of the amendment.

Dr. Elizabeth McCrann, who chairs the Colorado Ob/Gyn Society Teen Health Program, uses much stronger language to describe the impact of the PRA. "As far as we know, this could go into every facet of the child's life," she says. "The vagueness of the way the law is written opens a lot of doors. Means of investigation and [mandatory child abuse] reporting law could be blockaded. In addition, medical services that are currently [provided to minors] as confidential under Colorado law, things like birth control, sexually transmitted disease treatment, mental health services, prenatal care, and the like could fall by the wayside because parents don't want their kids to be sexually active. And believe me, it's not that they'll stop being sexually active; it's that they won't get medical treatment for things that could be life-threatening."

Kim Poyer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of the Child Advocacy and Protection Team at Children's Hospital in Denver, sees an even graver danger. "If this [amendment] supersedes the Children's Code, that would be a problem," Poyer says. "Does that mean that you have a right as a parent to sexually initiate your child? Does control over upbringing mean you can shake a six-week-old to death?"

Marti Kovener, director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the amendment "scares" her. "The hallmark of child sexual abuse is secrecy," says Kovener. "[Child molesters] groom their victim and make them feel responsible for what's happened to them. And then they blackmail them into keeping quiet about it by saying things like, `Mama won't love you anymore if you tell.' It's very intentional behavior. Anything that we do that further blocks the ability of these kids to be able to tell what happened to them--like limiting access to health services and counseling--would be a disaster. Children don't have the same ability to protect themselves as adults do."

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Michelle Johnston