stern­lines adding in­sult to in­jurY

The gov­ern­ment com­pounds tragedy with charges of abuse.

Yachts International - - Contents - By DuD­Ley Daw­son

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.

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