IN ALL HIS 84 YEARS, NORMAN ROCK-well may never have set foot in Silverton, Ore.—but that hasn't stopped the locals from trading on his name. On Water Street, the town's placid main thoroughfare, a quaint antiques shop boasts a sign proclaiming Silverton "a Rockwell kind of place." And a few blocks away is a virtual shrine to the beloved illustrator: a quartet of 20-foot-high murals that reproduce Rockwell's celebrated work The Four Freedoms.

The paintings lend an ironic backdrop to recent events in Silverton, a rural community of just over 6,200. Last December its seven-member city council, alarmed at a gradual rise in juvenile crime, unanimously passed the parental responsibility ordinance (No. 94-132), which makes parents liable for offenses committed by their children under 18. "Certainly you've got a right to bring children into this world," argues Mayor Ken Hector, 49, a father of four. "You've also got a right to own a gun—but you've got to use it responsibly."

Many states, including Oregon, require parents to pay restitution for property damage caused by their offspring. But the Silverton statute is one of the strongest, making "failing to supervise a minor" a civil offense. First-time offenders receive a warning. Two-time losers—or worse—get dragged into municipal court. If convicted, mothers and fathers may be fined as much as $1,000 and compelled to attend eight-week "parenting" courses approved by the municipal judge. Habitual offenders—or uncooperative parents—draw progressively steeper fines. So far 11 citations have been issued, and two parents have been given the option of paying a $150 fine or taking the once-a-week classes.

Widely supported in Silverton, 45 miles south of Portland, Ordinance No. 94-132 has generated a remarkable ripple effect. Hundreds of city officials across the nation and from as far away as Europe and Australia have swamped their Silverton counterparts with inquiries. But 94-132 also has some fervent detractors, who see it as a glaring intrusion of government into private life. "The idea that we can make people more caring parents by punishing them is backwards and born out of frustration," says Jossi Davidson, an attorney for three Silverton parents who plan to challenge the statute, starting at the municipal-court level. "Children are going to rebel—part of growing up is testing limits. That's going to happen in spite of what a parent does."

Leslie Harris, a professor of family law at the University of Oregon School of Law, agrees. "If you're a single mother and you have a teenager who's two feet taller than you and you can't control him, I don't think parenting classes are going to help," she says.

Scott Whitney, 17, may be a case in point. "I mean, if I want to do something, I'll just leave," he says. "I'll take off." A walking prototype of the anti-Rockwellian '90s teen, he is dressed in a turned-around baseball cap, earring, headphones and sagging, baggy pants. About two years ago, Whitney was busted for pinching bubble gum from a convenience store and served 25 hours of community service. Then in January his mother, Sylvia, was cited because Whitney was caught drinking a beer in public. "This law is real tough on moms," says Sylvia, 40, a medical-records technician who is one of Davidson's clients contesting the law. (Her husband, Charles, a paper-plant employee, was not on the scene at the time of the incident—and police generally cite the available parent.) "There's so much pressure on mothers these days," she adds. "We're trying to work and take care of our kids at the same time. You have to worry pretty much 24 hours a day." Lately, to keep tabs on her son she bought Scott a pager and now checks on him about every 90 minutes.

The nature of Scott's offense points to a salient fact about Silverton: it isn't Dodge City. There hasn't been a homicide here in more than six years, and though juveniles committed 51 percent of all crimes last year—roughly three times the national average—almost all were petty offenses, such as vandalism and public drinking and smoking. But according to Silverton Police Chief Randy Lunsford, 94-132 is meant to curb mild delinquency before the child graduates to more serious stuff. "We see it as early intervention," says Lunsford, 42, the father of two nondelinquent teenage sons.

The dilemma of Silverton's Ingles family, however, suggests that child-rearing may be more complex than 94-132 allows. Scott Ingles, 14, has a four-year portfolio of petty theft and vandalism. A high school freshman, his grade average is an almost invisible 0.83 on a 4-point scale ("I hate homework—it's boring," he explains). Most alarmingly, he has run away from home 21 times in two years, usually to stay with friends—a tendency that on several occasions has moved authorities to place him in foster homes. Then in April he earned a 94-132 citation for his mother, Laurie Ingles, 36, when he was caught smoking a cigarette outside Silverton Union High School.

"I've been trying with my son for four years," says Ingles. "We've been to all types of counseling. He's been to the state pen to visit the lifers, and out of 15 kids in his group, he's the only one who said, 'So what?' "

Says Scott, a mystery-novel freak: "I don't think it's my parents' fault. You do the crime, you do the time. That's the way I think it should be." His leaving home, he says, is triggered by a stormy relationship with his stepfather, Gary, 41, a housepainter (Scott's parents were divorced 12 years ago). "For example," says Scott, "after I make toast, I won't clean up the crumbs, and he'll tell me afterwards over and over and over and over, 'It's a mess.' But I don't want to give you the idea that he's an a—h—e. He's not."

For his part, Gary Ingles says, "I've tried to be his best friend. I've tried to be his father. We're not raising our kid to be a juvenile delinquent."

Tell it to the judge, says Mayor Hector. "It appears that these people are doing everything they can to raise that kid," he says. "But you have to find out the facts." Notes Hector: "The goal here isn't to be punitive; it's to help parents." And thus far, he claims, 94-132 seems to be working. Juvenile crime appears to have dropped, and several parents have enrolled in the courses voluntarily.

But some, like Jack Mattingly 44, one of Silverton's 11 police officers, remain highly critical of the ordinance. His daughter Jennifer, 16, was arrested for smoking in public last January. The charges were dismissed, since it was a first offense, but Mattingly, a divorced single father—and a smoker himself—asks, "Why should I be criminally responsible for her actions? How much control does one person have over another? You can't be with the child 24 hours a day."

RICHARD JEROME
BILL DONAHUE in Silverton

  • Contributors:
  • Bill Donahue.