sternlines adding insult to injurY
The government compounds tragedy with charges of abuse.
Acouple years ago, I wrote a Sternlines column mourning the loss of two teenage boys, Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, on a fishing trip out of Jupiter, Florida. I closed with hope that the tragedy would not be compounded by blaming one or more of the parents. That was not to be.
Recently released reports by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Department of Law Enforcement found probable cause of violation of the “neglect” clause of the state’s child abuse statutes, a second-degree felony. They cited a section that defined “neglect of a child” as failure to provide a level of supervision that a prudent person would deem essential to the child’s well-being. Most disturbingly for those of us who consider boating a wholesome family activity and an excellent path to maturity for children, the FDLE’s conclusion hinged on its position that the ocean is “an inherently dangerous environment,” unsafe for minors.
Thankfully, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office disagreed and refused to prosecute, opining that the state lacked probable cause inasmuch as “boating on the open seas is not an ‘inherently dangerous activity.’” However, the FDLE’s stated position regarding the ocean remains in the final report. It is thus possible that in another case, such an abuse charge could be repeated with another attorney offering a different opinion and agreeing to file charges.
We are all concerned about the safety of children, of course, but such a finding opens the door to all sorts of prosecutorial overreach on a broad scale. What about the father who allows his son to obtain a driver’s license, or worse yet, buys him a car, knowing that accident rates for teenagers soar above those of adults, with boys being the worst? What about the mother who allows her daughter to go on a date, recognizing the reality of date rape? What about the grandparent who buys a child a smartphone, knowing that texting and selfies are significant factors in any number of senseless fatalities?
Just what level of supervision should a prudent person consider essential in the delicate balance between protecting a child and allowing the risks necessary to prepare him for adulthood? No one wants to see a skinned knee, but the alternative is never learning to ride a bike.
Both Austin and Perry had completed boater education courses specifically so they could operate a boat on their own. Through this training and their practical experience, they were likely more capable than many of the hapless adults we encounter plying our waters. The boat and motor, though not new, were apparently well maintained. A forensic examination found the motor had operated normally until it was submerged during the severe storm that was deemed to have capsized their boat.
Austin and Perry’s parents seem to be safe from prison time, but the saga continues. Private lawyers have been hired, with civil litigation possible between the families of two close friends, buddies who shared the joy of life in a waterfront community, who boated together, fished together and, sadly, died together, finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is my hope for the families that they will find some level of peace and acceptance, for themselves and for each other. They’ve already lost too much to lose the happy memories, too. It is also my hope that the rest of us will remain free to raise our children as we see fit, certainly without abuse, but also recognizing that they may skin a knee, or worse, as they journey toward selfsufficiency. There’s nothing better than boating, in my opinion, to shepherd that journey.