How old do you have to be to make your own life changing decisions?

When it comes to drinking, smoking, tattoos, marriage, contracts, etc. the age at which you can legally partake of those activities varies by state and federal law. If these laws are based on nothing more than local preference, the ability to rely on those laws to protect your rights or limit your liabilities is reduced. What are your rights to access these activities if you are an emancipated teen?  When schools meddle in such laws things can get really scary and the courts are not even able to make coherent judgements. Two cases, one in Minnesota and one in Missouri, shed light on the problem with age restrictions, parental rights and school’s attempts to follow or manipulate the law.

At what age can you choose your sex?

In Judaism you had better start taking your child’s questions seriously at thirteen because history has shown that that is when they have enough mental capacity to take on the more serious topics of life. Piaget said that children had the ability to think abstractly around age fifteen, so bring on the algebra, driving, and maybe even marriage. Piaget may have been right that the beginnings of the ability to think abstractly are there at 15, but actuarial tables and FMRI’s show that fully functioning prefrontal cortices, where our planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and impulse control occurs are not fully formed until age 25.  That is why auto insurance remains more expensive for drivers under the age of 25 and those under 20 will have a very hard time renting a car. So if that part of your brain isn’t fully formed until well past high school, are high school aged children capable of making complex medical decisions, especially ones based on personality expression, such as gender reassignment?

A Minnesota federal court has thrown out the case of a parent who sued the St. Louis County MN, the St. Louis County School District, and the county’s Health and Human Services, over their denial of her parental rights to prevent them from administering sex hormone therapy to her transgender son. At the center of the case was whether or not the 15 year old son could be considered emancipated by simple decree or finding of the school district, without any judicial process where the wishes of the biological parents or an officer of the court could be considered. The court did not address the issue of whether a child at this age was competent to make decisions regarding sex change procedures. The rather weak ruling stated that since there was no specific law banning the school district from considering the child emancipated they could not be sued over violation of law. The judge did not have to expound on whether a child emancipated without court order would have legal standing to bring suit against the public health service that gave him the hormones or the private clinic that gave him narcotics should he suffer any adverse health outcomes as a result.

The ruling still leaves open the question; if a child is capable of making major medical decisions for themselves at 14 or 15 but not decisions regarding marriage, contracts or alcohol consumption, what is the purpose of an age prohibition on participation of those activities?

Courtless emancipation happened in Missouri

A Missouri family has experienced this unilateral decision making by the school district first hand. After prolonged stays with a girlfriend’s family the school used a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act, to declare their 15 year old son homeless and de facto emancipated. The Mom explained what happened next.

“Did we receive a notice that our child had been identified homeless? No. Nothing. They had our phone numbers, our address, our emails, the emergency contact numbers for grandparents, and I was in the school building as this was happening. No one attempted to communicate with me or any other family members. We were excluded from that day forward. Our emergency contacts were removed from Parent Portal and the girlfriend’s family added. We were removed as parents. At first, we became “noncustodial parents”. After protests, we are now listed as “nonresidential parents”.

Senior year of high school has traditionally been a launching period for families to celebrate years of accomplishments and hard work for both the student and the family who supported the student for eighteen years up to this point. We had that taken away. We were treated like we didn’t matter. No prom, no senior athlete nights or banquets, no graduation. We were faced with praying for good weather just so we could watch our child receive his diploma. Had it stormed, we had none of the tickets needed to enter the school gym. The school hand delivers all tickets to the student during graduation rehearsal. He had given the tickets to his girlfriend’s family because she was not graduating yet, and so they had no tickets. Triangulation and assassination. Very effective. Very hurtful. The deepest kind of hurt one can imagine.”

Federal law exploited by the state

The federal McKinney-Vento Act was created to provide consistent access to public school and other social services to children who, through no fault of their own, become homeless. The Act defines homelessness as “lacking fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”. But who decides what is “fixed”, “regular” or “adequate”?

The Act is not clear on the definitions of those terms so the federally mandated Homeless Liaison in every school district is empowered to make that determination. He or she is trained with your tax dollars to “seek, identify, and serve” homeless children. The liaison uses data provided through a district survey, which enables them to compete for discretionary grants at the state level, to help make that determination.  The data is stored in your Student’s Core File with DESE. Some districts send the survey to parents, but this district had the children fill the surveys out in school so the Sporleder’s son was able to declare himself homeless and the district then proceeded to cut his parents out of the picture.

In a September 19, 2012 DESE presentation, “Homeless 101” A Primer on the McKinney-Vento Act”, by Donna Cash, DESE’s state homeless liaison in Jefferson City, gave the state’s official position on how homelessness was to be determined. It is clear that the focus for districts is on funding, not student outcomes or parental rights.

You don’t have to tell the parents that they’re entered into your information systems as homeless…..All we want to know are the numbers and you are required to report those numbers. You can tell the parents that they can refuse the services under McKinney Vento, but we still have to let the federal government know. And one of the reasons that we do that, there are a couple of reasons; First of all, as you all know, that numbers are tied into funding…. And another thing, of course, is funding. Funding drives data. Data drives funding. So, if we are serving that many students in Missouri, we want our piece of the McKinney Vento pie from the federal legislation that you know is involved with McKinney Vento.”

When asked if a girl living with her boyfriend is considered homeless and unaccompanied youth, Cash responded,

“She is an unaccompanied youth. Remember, she doesn’t have a parent or guardian, a legal guardian who’s acting for her, and so, I think, under these situations, you have to again ask, ‘Is it fixed, regular and adequate?’ And in a situation where that child is living with another family, she can be asked to leave at any time, and I think that we could all agree that often relationships between teens is very tumultuous, and so, one day you’re in love head over heels- right? – And then the next day you can’t stand the sight of each other. So, in that particular situation, I think I would ask her, the student, ‘What happens if you’re asked to leave that home?’ So what happens if Boyfriend wakes up one morning and decides that he doesn’t want to continue this relationship? Ask her, ‘Where would you go?’ Has she burned all her bridges at home? Or could she go back home? Or would she be forced to live in her car or double up with someone else? And so I think there’s your answer for that one.”

How do you identify an unaccompanied youth? If they come in and they are not accompanied by a parent. If you look to the left, and you look to the right, there’s not a mom or dad, then you have an unaccompanied youth…  We’re not really concerned with why they left home. We’re concerned with their nighttime residence.”

“…this doubled up situation is what we refer to as couch surfing often times, it’s your unaccompanied youth, who are perhaps 16, 17, even as young as 15. Unaccompanied youth and their doubled up situations are often difficult to identify, and they’re the largest percentage that we have in Missouri school districts. Our experience tells us that we truly don’t worry about what really what happened in the family to cause the homelessness or why the student left the home…  Sometimes, they simply want to be on their own. Remember, we have to look at their current living situation.”

If a child under the age of 18 wants something, is there anything to stop them?

They want to be on their own. They want a tattoo. They want to get married. They want to mess with their sex hormones. They want to smoke or drink. They want to enlist. The answer to whether or not they can, with or without parental consent, varies depending on the topic. Decisions in one area may affect other areas.

In Missouri, a child at age 16 can have the statutory “right to contract” (RsMO 431.056. 1) if they are: homeless, self supporting and there is at least implied parental consent, if not actual parental consent. Implied consent can be determined by the parent “barring the minor from the home or otherwise indicating that the minor is not welcome to stay.” The Sporleders were advised by the Saline County Sheriff’s deputy to change the locks on their house since their son could return to the home while they were gone and take anything he wanted and, there still were other children in the home. This action was sited by DESE, during the grievance process, as the pivotal reason he was deemed homeless. Thus they stood by the district’s action.

“RsMO 431.056. 1. A minor shall be qualified and competent to contract for housing, employment, purchase of an automobile, receipt of a student loan, admission to high school or post secondary school, obtaining medical care, establishing a bank account.

Think of the trouble a 16 year old can get into, trouble that can take years to correct, by doing any of the listed actions in MO statute above!

A process too simple and open to abuse

Normally we think that there must be some significant cause to split parent and child. However, the Minnesota agencies simply accepted the child’s self declaration of emancipation (written pro bono by the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid clinic) and the Missouri school simply accepted the child’s declaration that he was living elsewhere as proof that he was emancipated. In neither case were the biological parents consulted before actions were taken. The Sporleder mom writes further,

There were no allegations of abuse made at that time. There was no investigation.  Automatically, your mind tries to fill in the blanks and make sense of it all. You believe there must have been abuse. Why else would a child run away from home? Is this really that hard to understand?  Donna Cash said it was a major reason teens are included in MVA – they want to “double up”.

I guess knocking was not an option. Because he was not “in the physical custody” of us, because we could not regain physical custody through the sheriff or police, and because he was an “unaccompanied youth”, we were essentially divorced by our child, but not through any official proceedings.

Clearly these types of decisions should be made in a more inclusive process for they leave the child vulnerable and do not officially assign oversight for the decisions made by these children to any consistent adult. Cutting all the bridges to family, which might, when all is said and done, be the only thing a child has left to fall back on, may not be in the best interest of the child. Might the Missouri case or the Minnesota case have had different outcomes if child and parent were required to at least attempt family counseling before drastic steps were taken to permanently sever the parent/child bond? Those children who would truly benefit from being separated from abusive parents can access the existing judicial system to do so, a system which still puts some adult in place to look out for for them. These other kids have a high school counselor who is there for a couple years at best.

If you are the parent of a mutinous teen, read up on McKinney-Vento and Missouri here and here regarding emancipation because it takes surprising little for your parental rights to be completely abolished in moments of youthful rebellion.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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