David Hoppe

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:: Holding parents truly accountable

A modest proposal

by David Hoppe

At the end of August, Mayor Greg Ballard announced the city of Indianapolis was filing public nuisance lawsuits against the owners of a pair of apartment complexes, where it appears the chances of getting a good night’s sleep are close to zero.

According to the lawsuits, there have been more than 3,200 police runs and over 200 public health and code enforcement investigations at these places, whose names, the Esmeralda and Heather Ridge, make a half-hearted attempt at evoking a quality of life their residents can only begin to imagine. I doubt leases at these people traps make mention of assault, armed robbery or homicide, but all have, at one time or another, turned out to be part of the package.

“It is absolutely critical to our efforts to combat crime and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods that we crack down on negligent property owners,” said Mayor Ballard in a press release. “We must hold property owners accountable for draining unnecessary public resources and damaging our communities.”

To which I — and I’m sure a lot of people with the bad luck to be living anywhere near one of these toxic hives — say, “Bravo!”

The mayor could have pussy-footed around this issue. He could have gone on doing what is typical in cases like this, and continued sending cops and other first responders to these places, one desperate call at a time.

He could, in other words, have continued to place the responsibility for the bad behavior in these places on the heads of each and every perpetrator.

This, however, would have ignored the forest for the trees.

But this is the way things often go in America. We’ll scratch and scratch at a rash, rather than go after the poison that causes it. That’s because our notion of freedom is based on a rather narrow interpretation of personal responsibility. This is fine up to a point: If somebody attacks someone else, there’s nothing for it but to bring the attacker in. That much is obvious.

Not so obvious is when trouble is perpetuated because people — in this case, landlords — are, in effect, enabling bad behavior by turning a blind eye on their properties. They may claim they can’t be held responsible for the actions of their tenants. Yet bad things keep happening. A pattern emerges.

Indianapolis is right to pin the blame on these donkeys. As the mayor suggests, the city needs to take action on behalf of the other people in the neighborhoods that are inevitably affected by being in close proximity to these landlords’ cynicism.

This makes me wonder if other, seemingly intractable, problems might not benefit from a similar approach. Think of what follows as a modest proposal.

This year, the incidence of gun violence among teenagers in the city has been a cause for alarm. In many instances, observers see a connection between the alienation leading many of these kids to violence and chronic high school drop-out rates. “In some ways, it is easier for a child in 46218 [zip code] to get a gun than an education,” U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett told a gathering at the Eastern Star Church last February.

Then, after an outbreak of violence at Circle Centre Mall, Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said: “We're going to look at making parents accountable, making them come and pick up their children. And if they do any damage, and if there's a way, then we're going to hold them accountable in court."

Surely, if we can throw the book at landlords for turning their buildings into criminal hot spots, we can hold parents responsible for things their children do, especially when those children are doing things with guns.

This means bumping up against another version of what we like to call freedom — and challenging what we mean by personal responsibility. Anyone who wants to be a parent is free to do so in our society. But by now we know that just as some apartment complexes can be called socially toxic, the same can be said about what we (all too) loosely call families.

The trouble is that while a great deal is at stake every time another person is brought into this world, that person’s parents, unless they commit the grossest forms of abuse or neglect, are accountable to nobody.

That’s freedom for you.

But what if every time a kid was caught committing a crime with a gun, a parent paid a real price? What if when a kid dropped out of school, a parent was penalized?

Howls of protest would arise. People would chafe at what they would surely call government’s heavy hand. But more kids might do better in school. Some streets and neighborhoods might even be safer.

And we might learn to think of these things as a kind of freedom, too.