David Brown Is His Own Man at 17—he Divorced His Parents

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

David Brown is in many ways a typical sophomore at Conard High in West Hartford, Conn. He loves cars, music, sports and dogs. He is getting used to new contact lenses, pulls a C average and works after school as a drugstore clerk and delivery boy. But nobody at Conard High ever sees David's parents. The reason is that last September David in effect "divorced" his mother and father, making him a legal adult at the age of 17.

David was able to take that unusual step under Connecticut's little-known Emancipation of Minors Act, which absolves parents of legal responsibility (and liability) for children—but without declaring them incompetent. During the law's first year, 34 youths were granted independence after a judge's decision that it was in the best interests of the parents and children. (California and Oregon have similar statutes.) David is now eligible to receive medical care, join the armed forces, marry and establish credit ratings or residency without parental consent. "I'm a legal adult in all respects except two," he notes. "I can't drink and I can't vote."

His "divorce" from his parents is not surprising considering his turbulent childhood. David was born in Venezuela to an oil company employee father who all but disappeared when David was a year old. His mother, Connie, who battled a drinking problem, moved five times in six years. She then spent eight years in Connecticut and finally settled in the isolated upstate New York town of Fort Covington on the Canadian border. Unhappy, David found himself "fighting with her all the time." Then, after a minor skirmish with the local police, he ran away two days before his 16th birthday and for more than a year lived with his two grown sisters or camped in a friend's backyard. "It wasn't as bad as it sounds—I could use the bathroom and take showers," he notes.

He worked at odd jobs—cook, waiter, door-to-door salesman and meat-cutter's apprentice—until he decided "I don't want to be unskilled the rest of my life." But when he tried to return to high school in his former hometown of South Windsor, Conn., he was told that he was unable to enroll without a permanent address and a guardian who was a resident. That's when he heard about the Emancipation Act. His court-appointed lawyer, Brian Mead, was "impressed that David had a direction in life and was willing to work for it." His mother at first resisted—"I thought he was too immature to be out on his own," she says—but later relented. His father, who is thought to be in Saudi Arabia, never answered the court notice, and David was finally emancipated by the hearing judge.

Adult status has not solved all of David's problems. He quickly found that, legally responsible or not, "no one will rent to a 17-year-old kid." He has resorted to living with his 84-year-old maternal grandfather and his bedridden grandmother in West Hartford. When David applied for a driver's license, he futilely argued with a supervisor who refused to issue one before the legal adult driving age of 18. Finally, David had his grandfather sign as guardian. "We could have fought it," says his lawyer, "but David made a practical evaluation of the situation."

His life now is more adult than teenage. He arises at 5 a.m., exercises and jogs before walking to school, makes a brown-bag dinner each afternoon to take to work, gets back to the house after 10, does homework in "my hideaway" or just reads. He washes his own clothes, tries to keep the place tidy, and cooks when he can—his specialties are stuffed squid and manicotti. "My mother taught me manners and how to cook," he says. He talks eagerly about going into computers, real estate, dog handling in the Army K-9 Corps, or even—his dream—becoming a veterinarian.

Most hearteningly, David has found that his legal independence has helped his relationship with his mother. "Divorce sounds like people hate each other," he reflects. "I don't hate my mother. We get along better now. I guess absence really does make the heart grow stronger."

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