No emancipation rush
9 Utah teens' reasons to split from their parents run gamut
Nine teenagers have petitioned Utah's juvenile courts to become emancipated from their parents since a new law went into effect in May, but there seems to be "no rush" of the so-called Lost Boys who have escaped or been cast out of polygamous communities.

Instead, state Guardian ad Litem Kristin Brewer says there seems to be quite a mixture of youngsters with varying motivations asking the court to be free of their parents.

There appears to be no particular pattern.

"It's a whole gamut a kid living at home who doesn't want to do what mom says to a kid living in foster care who is tired of dealing with the system and wants to be independent," Brewer said. "Our experience shows it doesn't seem like a rush from the 'Lost Boys.' "

The state Legislature approved a law permitting 16- and 17-year-old youths to ask juvenile courts to emancipate them. Part of the motivation for passage of the law was to assist the Lost Boys in gaining independence or to help homeless teens who have been on their own for years.

First, the young people must fill out court-supplied forms. Typically, a juvenile court judge will appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the teen. Court hearings are held and the final decision rests with the judge.

Among those who have petitioned or are in the process:
  • A teenage girl who wants to be emancipated but says she still wants to live with her parents.

  • A 16-year-old boy who has been in foster care and cannot go home because of his parents' substance abuse and mental health problems. He said he is weary of the state foster-care system and juvenile courts and wants to support himself and be independent.

  • A 17-year-old girl who lives with her mother says her mother makes her do all the housework and takes her paycheck.

  • A 17-year-old girl who alleged her mother was physically abusive and moved out to live with another adult woman but did not meet with her guardian ad litem, failed to show up for court and had her case dismissed.
Brewer said a key issue that must be explored is the reason why the youth wants to get out of the house.

"Our concern is whether it's a kid just trying to exercise independence basic teenage behavior and doesn't know what emancipation means, or is there something more going on in the household making the child want to leave," Brewer said.

Underlying surface concerns may be the possibility that mom or dad have substance-abuse problems or serious emotional problems. Perhaps the child is doing all the parenting and housework, while dad or mom sleeps all day and grabs the teen's earnings from an after-school job to buy drugs.

Or maybe the youngster lives in a regular and healthy household but doesn't want to live by the rules.

Among other things, emancipation means being able to support yourself financially and be responsible for yourself in an adult fashion.

"It's very important the teenager feel like they were listened to and can tell the court what they want and why they want it," Brewer said. "But that doesn't abdicate our interest to look out for their best interests."

In other words, the system doesn't always guarantee freedom and sometimes freedom from parents is not the best choice.

Certainly getting free of physically or sexually abusive, drug-using, chronically alcoholic or severely mentally ill parents might be not only healthier, but even life-saving for a youngster.

In such cases, however, the youth might be better served by foster care or being taken in by another responsible adult, such as a relative, rather than becoming emancipated. In these cases, a type of legal guardianship can be arranged.

Brewer says one thing the guardian ad litem tries to do is explain the wide array of options available outside of just emancipation itself.

"It may or may not always be in their best interest to be emancipated, but it is some kind of cry for help from the kid," she said. "If it looks more like parent conflict, as opposed to abuse or neglect, we can look at is there room for family or crisis counseling."

Occasionally, situations are more benign and alternatives can be arranged through the courts, again short of emancipation.

One example: dad has custody, gets a great job in another state, but the teen wants to finish high school here. In that case, another responsible adult could get power of attorney and have the child live in that home.

Brewer also said it's crucial to find out where the teenager learned about the idea of becoming emancipated.

For example, if a divorced dad planted the idea and the teenager becomes emancipated, then he doesn't have to pay child support to the mother anymore. But does that really help the child?

For some teenagers, being emancipated offers real benefits. Runaways, for example, cannot register to attend school because there is no adult to sign for them. In certain rare cases, teens have been supporting themselves and taking care of themselves in a highly responsible way for a long time, but without any of the benefits and rights of being emancipated.

Still, there are drawbacks and most of them have to do with the fact that the system is dealing with people who are simply very young and may not be so world-wise as they first appear.

Originally published Sunday, July 30, 2006