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Rewriting a bad law

May 12, 1997

Imagine for a moment that it's a little later in the summer, sometime in early July. You're taking the family out for a boat ride on the Potomac when your 14-year-old son suddenly stands up, loses his balance and falls overboard. Frantically, as you're fumbling for the life preserver, a police boat pulls alongside and prevents you from throwing a flotation device to your struggling son.

Sound like a bad dream? Talk to Debbie and Lynn Whitesel of Dauphin County, Pa. Their 17-year-old son was drowning in a sea of alcohol abuse, but a state law prevented them from forcing him into the treatment that might have saved his life. We agree with the Whitesels - it's time to change this law.

The law in question is a 1972 statute which says any Pennsylvania child 14 or older must give his or her consent before entering a drug- or alcohol-treatment program. The law also protects the confidentiality of any child entering such a program.

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The purpose of both of those provisions was to prevent a child seeking help from being abused by a parent who believes addiction can be - literally - beaten out of a child. But the consent provision also prevents parents who see a child needs help from forcing him or her to get it.

Fortunately, some help is on the way. Rep. Patricia Vance, R- Silver Spring Township, has introduced a bill that would give parents the right to take control of their addicted children, if it was clear the children could not control their own lives. Interviewed by The Associated Press, Vance said her bill would not allow parents to commit children to treatment programs without good cause, and would provide for exemptions to the parental-notification bill.

Mrs. Whitesel correctly argues that it makes no sense that parents, who are legally responsible for their children's actions up to age 18, can be denied the power to save their lives. Whatever change comes, it will be too late to save her son Erick, who committed suicide in January of 1996. Let the next death be on the heads of those who oppose Rep. Vance's bill.

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