OKEECHOBEE — When the question was posed to Major Noel Stephen about deputies handling time-consuming complaints from parents about their unruly children, he leaned back in his chair and drew a deep breath.
Then, after what seemed like minutes, he laid it all on the table: “We’re being utilized as the parent. We’re having to teach parents to be parents.”
His deputies at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) have recently been answering numerous calls dealing with aggressive, defiant and lazy children. According to OCSO records, those kids range in age from 6 to 17.
OCSO records show from Aug. 1 through the month of November deputies have been called to area homes nine times just because a parent couldn’t get their child out of bed in order to go to school.
While that mere number of calls is anything but astronomical, it’s the deputy’s time that matters. In at least one of those calls a deputy was tied up for an hour. He had to roust the kid out of bed, wait for the teen to get dressed then he had to take the boy to school.
There was another call where the deputy was tied up for 38 minutes.
Again, that may not seem like much. But, those calls kept two deputies tied up for a total of 98 minutes. That’s 98 minutes two law enforcement officers were not on the road and were not enforcing the law.
The deputies are ostensibly being used as babysitters.
“In essence, that’s all we are,” said Maj. Stephen. “If cops could do just cop work, there would be more than enough (deputies) to go around.”
But, the major also stressed that while these calls are not a priority and are handled by a deputy only when that deputy has nothing else pending, they do serve a purpose.
“We handle these non-criminal calls to keep them from becoming a domestic violence or child abuse situation. We are trying to deter violent behavior,” he pointed out. “Some of these children are children of domestic violence or sexual abuse and are just acting out.”
Some, he added, are being raised by their grandparents.
“And, that’s not a good situation,” he continued.
While the deputies are trying to deter violence, the truth of the matter is that some of these defiant children will end up on the wrong side of a jail door despite law enforcement’s best efforts.
With a sigh, the major said that’s becoming a sad truth that he’s seeing day after day.
“Dads I dealt with 26 years ago, we’re now dealing with their children and their grandchildren,” he said.
OCSO records indicate from Aug. 1 through November deputies dealt with 96 non-criminal juvenile calls. It should be mentioned there were also situations handled by deputies that are not listed as “juvenile problem.” Calls could be listed any number of different ways.
Which means while the sheriff’s office is handling an average of 2,500 calls a month, it would be next to impossible to know the exact number of calls deputies handle in regard to a defiant child.
Of those 96 juvenile calls, the majority came from parents who couldn’t handle their child; the child was swearing at them; the child was being aggressive toward them; or, in the case of a 6-year-old boy, “the child was causing problems.”
Following are some other examples:
• A deputy was called to a home where the mother was trying to discipline her child so she took away the child’s electronic gaming system. To retaliate, the child took the mother’s phone and wouldn’t give it back. So, a deputy was asked to intervene.
• A deputy was called to a home where a child had some friends staying overnight and they were making so much noise it was keeping the child’s mother awake. When the child and guests wouldn’t quiet down, she called the sheriff’s office. The deputy responded and told the boys they had to leave. They did.
• A deputy was called to a home by a mother who said her son “was misbehaving.” According to the deputy’s report, the child raised his voice to his mother because she wouldn’t let him say what he wanted to tell her.
It should also be brought up that while many of these calls are not only time consuming and incidents a parent should handle, there are those situations that are extremely serious, such as, calls from parents who were upset to learn their children were cutting themselves to deal with stress; or, contemplating suicide.
In these situations, said Maj. Stephen, the deputies tell the parents about the many services that are available to them at the child’s school or at the state level.
But, he added, by and large the calls dealing with juvenile problems center around aggressive or defiant children. In these cases, the major said his deputies try to take the time to talk to the child.
“Every situation is different. But, you have to talk to the child and tell them ‘if you continue, you’re going to end up with more grief than you’re getting today’,” Maj. Stephen said.
However, when it’s all said and done, it’s the cop who’s trying to help that turns out to be the bad guy.
“We’re ultimately the enforcer,” offered the major. “When it comes to being the enforcer, we’re the bad parent – if you will. It’s the deputy that’s the mean one.”
So, why are parents having so many problems with their children. The major, again taking a long breath, opined it all boils down to one word: Respect.
“The respect is different than in years past. I think, in our Southern way, it used to be ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ was the proper response. But, a lot of people today don’t have the respect,” he said. “Respect needs to be instilled in everyone.”
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News