Legal Issues

Arrrrggghhh, ouch and yikes.

Besides copious traffic violations and parking tickets, trouble with the law beyond that was not our trouble with Ted. But it is for many, if not most young people abusing substances.  I’m not a lawyer, but I’m married to one. The threat of jail or prison has not been my experience but let me share a few hints that have been helpful to those around me.   

Speaking to a group of parents, a recovering young addict told the audience, “Getting arrested can be the best thing that ever happens to us addicts. It shakes things up and can be the wake-up call we need.”

The policeman also present at the presentation to parents I mentioned above said that he and his comrades have had young people return and express gratitude for arresting them saying, “I have no idea where I’d be if that hadn’t happened.  I want to thank you.”

Treatment over incarceration.

In a better world, people with substance abuse issues would receive help and not punishment. If you had diabetes and no insulin was available to you and you felt like you HAD TO HAVE IT TO LIVE, would you steal it? Would you do anything to get it if the alternative was (feeling like) you’d die without it? The physical craving and mental obsession an addict has compels him or her to do anything to satisfy this insatiable hunger. Do we understand that? Not really. Do we absolve them of personal responsibility? Nope. But do we only incarcerate for the actions that came from a disease?  When we just punish, we satisfy the moral issue but we don’t address the medical issue. 80% of criminal acts have substance abuse at the core. Which makes sense — treating the symptom or the disease?


I know you want direction and not a soap box expose’. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I can suggest some things you may choose to pursue. One is juvenile or adult drug court. These have proven to be highly effective in promoting recovery because there is accountability and it’s not from you the parent. This can be a viable alternative to incarceration. Not all communities have drug courts, especially juvenile drug courts, which is a shame but they are on the rise, thank God.

If you want your child to experience the consequences of his or her actions and are reticent to get involved — understood. You may choose though, to hire a lawyer, not to get your child absolved from all responsibility, but to ensure that he or she is navigated through the system fairly. I know a young man who hired a lawyer to defend his DUI, not to escape penalty, but to avoid a penalty beyond what fit the crime. The legal system is full of pitfalls we don’t understand. I would encourage you to swallow some pride and call a lawyer friend who can recommend another lawyer who could help you. My husband has done this for people many times and he doesn’t tell me who calls him.

Should I call the police?

I can’t tell you the answer to this question. It is for you and your family to decide. Some parents do this and some don’t. Your circumstances and prayerful consideration will help you know. The law enforcement I’ve encountered, deeply care about young people and have no desire to simply lock them up. They want to be helpful, but this may not be across the board. I suggest reading the book, Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children.

I also know that, for instance, in our community we have a social worker employed with and alongside the police department who works with families in crisis to help them find local resources and solutions before and instead of punitive consequences.  That is worth a call, even anonymously if it makes you more comfortable.

I would urge you to be careful if you threaten your child with calling the police. As you well know, a warning consequence should be enforced or it will not be taken seriously next time.  I suggest, Choices and Consequences: What to do when a Teenager Uses Alcohol/Drugs by Dick Shaefer. That might help you with your decisions on how to proceed.


I’ve seen parents get legal advice from other parents in small parent support groups. Although other people’s experience is helpful indeed, I would still talk to a lawyer to understand the ramifications of various decisions and actions. If you don’t have a family friend lawyer, the money you spend for an hour of a lawyer’s time will be worth it. Often I lament to my husband about the legal system on behalf of the average citizen, “How would anyone KNOW THAT?!” There are so many nuances to the law that the every man and every woman just can’t imagine.

Forgive me if this sounds condescending, but many folks don’t understand that lawyers charge by the hour and the segments of an hour. If you call with a lot of questions, know that you are charged for every call so be concise and have your questions ready. Lawyers are lawyers to earn a living and that’s how they get paid. Sometimes people are surprised by these costs.

Hang on to this hope.

I attended a recovery fundraising event where I sat at a table with two young friends of ours who also happen to be convicted felons in recovery. One of those felons, now a college graduate in social work, is a drug court liaison for young people and has a full time job navigating recovering students to a college degree.  The judge who sentenced her is now her biggest advocate. The other felon sat next to his dad to whom he is close, has a responsible job and is pursuing a masters degree in alcohol and drug counseling.  To look at these two you’d never suspect in your wildest dreams that they’ve experienced prison. Bright and beautiful stigma-busters.

So please don’t think that if your child ends up in jail or prison it is the end of their productive life. Sometimes it takes some intense fertilizer for the seed to grow into something strong and tall.