Measure targets vandals' parents

Bill would force parents to cover more costs of child's vandalism

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Two bills moving through the Legislature would make parents responsible for a greater amount of damages when their children commit acts of vandalism.

State law says parents or guardians of minors who destroy property can't be sued for more than $10,000.

But vandals sometimes cause much more damage. Two teenagers were arrested a year ago for smashing pipes, wallboard and windows at the new Dimond High School with damage totaling about $158,000. The district probably will get about $10,000 back.

Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 18, which would eliminate the limit, are backed by Anchorage School District officials, whose efforts to get paid for vandalism have been stifled by the legal cap on claims.

"For some parents, it will be tough to have to face the consequences," said Sen. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican who is sponsoring SB 2. "But hopefully it will encourage them to make being good parents a high priority."

The cap for suing minors' parents was $2,000 until 1995, when the Legislature increased it to $10,000, said Rep. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican and sponsor of HB 18.

But as in the Dimond High case, $10,000 hasn't been enough, said Carol Comeau, Anchorage superintendent.

"Excuses are being made by parents like, 'Oh, we didn't know what our children were doing' or 'We have no means to pay it back,' " Comeau said. "Well, I don't think the taxpayers should have to pay for it, and I don't think we should have to take it out of our classrooms to pay for totally wanton, needless vandalism."

The vandalism bills have illuminated philosophical differences, even between the bill sponsors. How much payback is enough? What's fair?

"You can't get blood out of a turnip, so if a family doesn't have (money), there won't be much of a recovery," Dyson said. "Somebody that's facing huge economic liabilities like that can declare bankruptcy and walk away with having preserved some of their equity and a house and a car of some value and so on."

Dyson's bill had its first round with the Health, Education and Social Services Committee on Feb. 24.

Meyer went through round one with the State Affairs Committee on Feb. 20. He said questions about the bill included a proposal to just increase the financial limit again - maybe to $25,000 or $50,000.

"A lot of people are uncomfortable with no cap. And frankly, having an 11-year-old myself, and knowing children from time to time will make a bad decision, and to think that we could be spending the rest of our lives paying for it, that's worrisome," Meyer said. He said some legislators wonder whether eliminating the cap would discourage people from adopting troubled kids.

Linda Gonzales, a mother of nine children, six of whom are adopted, thinks it would. Gonzales said she has heard other adoptive parents worry about the $10,000 liability.

"The younger you get them, the more likely you're going to think you can shape them, where when you get an older child you may not think you get a fair chance at that," Gonzales said.

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