Longform

WHO'S THE BOSS?

Page 5 of 6

But proponents say all the talk about child abuse is nothing but a political smokescreen, and they accuse critics of using scare tactics. "This has nothing to do with child abuse," says DeLay. "Child abuse will still be child abuse. It doesn't change that law."

Adds Lynne Hart, "Just because I'm pro-life or just because I send my kids to Cherry Hills Christian School doesn't mean I want to secretly be able to abuse the living daylights out of my kids and have carte blanche to do it. Parental Rights Act and abuse? The two don't go together. It would never enter my mind, if you didn't bring it up."

Marty Nalitz of the Colorado Christian Coalition echoes Hart's sentiments. "The Parental Rights Amendment wouldn't in any way impact child abuse laws," he says. "The legislature has laid down criteria about what is abuse and what's not." In fact, Nalitz says he had no objection to the recent successful prosecution of radical-right Denver radio talk-show host Bob Enyart for a belt-lashing that left welts, bruises and broken skin on his seven-year-old stepson's back. "Now I know Bob, and he's a friend of mine," says Nalitz. "But Bob was guilty. What he did was a crime because there were welts left."

Jeanne Adkins, a mainstream Republican state representative from Parker, just spent a summer with a special committee of legislators, parents and children's rights advocates rewriting the Colorado Children's Code. The new version, which will be introduced as soon as the legislature convenes in January, proposes a number of changes in current law, including making school attendance a matter of parental choice (it's now mandatory for kids under the age of sixteen), but also making it easier for parental rights to be terminated in certain child-abuse cases.

Adkins agrees with Nalitz that the parents' rights initiative wouldn't do anything to drastically alter child-abuse laws in the various states. "I don't think that the courts anywhere would construe what any of us would normally consider as child abuse as being the right of the parent," she says. "That's absurd. Sure, the language is slightly vague, but there are a lot of vague provisions in the [state] constitution, and the courts haven't construed them so broadly as to say the legislature had no authority."

DeLay laughs when she hears some of the more extreme predictions about the amendment's potential effects. "Ask them where they get their crystal ball," she says. "They're assuming that [the law would impact child abuse laws]. That's up for the courts to decide."

Indeed, the only thing that both the opponents and proponents of the Parental Rights Amendment agree on is that if it passes, judges across the state will be kept very, very busy. As proponent Tom Tancredo of the Independence Institute puts it, "The reality is that almost everything [in the amendment] will have to be adjudicated."

Surprisingly, the prospect of a litigious tidal wave pleases the amendment's conservative supporters. "If we're in court for the rest of our lives, thank goodness," DeLay says. "Then we will have done our job. People litigate the First Amendment every day--that doesn't mean there's something wrong with it. We're not here to decide what parents can or cannot do. If it's litigated from day to day, we've done our job."

"Call it the lawyer's full-employment act," says Katie Reinisch, public affairs director for Colorado Planned Parenthood. "Don't call it the Parental Rights Amendment when it won't do anything to guarantee the rights that are already there. If this passes, then every time a teenager walks into our clinic to seek information or birth control, will we need to call her parents? If she can't get information or birth control from us, that doesn't mean she won't have sex; it just means she won't be able to protect herself from diseases or pregnancy."

And Reinisch envisions other potential legal points the courts will be left to sort out. "If a teen runs away from home and ends up at a shelter at Urban Peak, does this mean her potentially abusive parents will be notified?" she asks. "When a teen goes to a community center for gay and lesbian counseling, will they have to call his parents?" Reinisch pauses for a moment. "We see parents who bring their teenagers into the clinic and say, `Give my child an abortion,' and the teen would rather carry to term," she says. "We see that just as frequently as we see it the other way around. Does this amendment mean we must give the teen an abortion over her objections?"

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michelle Johnston