BY SUSAN ESTRICH
As it turns out, it was no secret that Richard and Mayumi Heene were very bad parents. Their associates knew it. Television producers witnessed it. Their willingness to put their children in danger to get attention was nothing new. They chased storms with their children. They used them to become “stars” of reality television. They taught them an ugly and offensive rap song about not being “pussies,” which they posted on YouTube.
In the wake of their horrifying hoax, all kinds of stories are coming out about these bad parents. Former associates describe the father in the worst possible terms. They made it onto Wife Swap – twice, no less, back by popular demand the second time – precisely because they provided such a striking contrast to the other family, with its stable and normal parents who would not teach their children to swear, or tolerate it if they did, who wouldn’t film them defecating by the side of the road or covered in feces, as the Heenes did, who didn’t go looking for danger with three young children along.
It’s easy to blame the media for giving too much attention to their hoax. But what else could they do? A balloon flying thousands of miles above the ground with a 6-year-old boy inside, traveling 50 miles before it landed, is one of those stories that will always capture attention. Law enforcement has to take such a report seriously. So, frankly, do the media. Long before the days of 24-hour cable news, we were riveted by similar tales – the girl in the well is the one I remember best.
Like everyone else, I held my breath waiting for that balloon to land. But I also thought, even then, who leaves a balloon in the backyard with a 6-year-old playing unsupervised? What were these people doing? Turns out, they were trying to get a reality show and using their kids to do it. So wrong.
The problem with procreation is that you don’t need a license to do it. You don’t need to pass any character test, prove your fitness, establish your maturity. If the Heenes had applied to adopt a child, they’d have been bounced in a New York minute. No agency in the country would entrust someone else’s baby to these people. But no one could stop them from having their own.
The law has long struggled with the question of when to take children from their biological parents. A whole body of law has developed protecting parental rights against state intervention and establishing high standards for children to be removed from their parents’ home, particularly if such removal is permanent.
No one who knows anything about the foster care system would pretend for one minute that it is a panacea. There are good foster parents and good foster homes, but there are almost certainly just as many bad ones. Kids who are taken from their parents often spend the rest of their lives missing them. A former student of mine, Andrew Bridge, wrote a haunting memoir last year about his life in foster care, always longing for his mentally ill mother to take him back. Hope was her name; Hope’s Boy was the name of his book.
Still. There have to be limits, and those limits have to be enforced. Reality television blurs the line between children and child actors, between pretend parents and real ones. Bad parenting is not entertainment. It’s abuse, even if it gets ratings.
Richard Heene is likely to be charged for his role in the hoax, which is a crime against the people of Colorado. I have not yet heard of anyone who needed the help of law enforcement while they were busy chasing an empty balloon, but that is always the danger with false alarms.
But his greater crime, and his wife’s, was the one they committed against their own children. They should be punished, and their children protected.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer