Out of Trust, Some Parents Turn to Spying
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page A1 Scared but determined, Robin Ihara bought the small telephone-tapping device at an electronics store and had it hooked up to a phone and a tape recorder in an upstairs bedroom. She tucked the equipment behind an empty detergent box.
Then came the hard part: Every day, after her 14-year-old son, Nathan, had left for school, Ihara listened to the tape of his previous night's conversations with his friends.
As details of his secret life poured forth, they confirmed her suspicions. Her son's explosive temper, his sudden disappearances, his hostility toward his parents and teachers were not merely signs of a stormy adolescence.
Despite his fierce denials, her son her inquisitive, restless child who loved music and art was a drug addict.
Nathan, usually articulate, sounded vacant and dimwitted on the tapes. He tripped over his words, repeated himself, wandered through his sentences.
"To hear your son talk while he's high and just all the stupid, stupid things they say when they're high it just tears you up," said Ihara, a 45-year-old substitute teacher who lives in Fairfax County. "It is a very painful thing to do. ... I would have given anything not to have to do it."
In a world full of dangerous temptations, more and more parents are spying on their children. Desperate to know the truth about their teenagers' behavior, they are willing to cast aside concerns about privacy and to risk alienating their children if they are caught. And it has never been so easy to find the tools to carry out the surveillance.
Home urinalysis kits were introduced two years ago and are selling briskly in stores, and parents in Baltimore County can bring their children to a counseling center for a $50 urine test under a program launched last month.
Parents who worry about their children's safety behind the wheel can purchase "Drive Right," a pocket-size computerized device that records how fast and erratically a car was driven. Miniature cameras can be hidden in radios, VCRs and clocks.
Parents aren't just turning to gadgets. Private investigators say they're getting an increasing number of requests to have children tailed. And in the last 18 months, more than 130 suspicious parents have paid a Winchester, Va., company to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to scour their homes for drugs or weapons.
"Let us come in, just like you'd hire a maid service or ChemLawn to fertilize your lawn," says Russ Ebersole, the owner of the business that provides the dog searches. "We can sweep through your home. [If there are] no indications, then man, can you rest easy."
Businesses, drug counselors and family therapists say that in the vast majority of cases, parents are resorting to these tactics because they suspect their children are abusing drugs or alcohol, although some parents are concerned about other dangerous activities, such as gangs.
For some baby boomer mothers and fathers, who once ranted at their own parents to get out of their lives and who transformed illicit drug use into an entire culture, the notion of snooping on their children with dogs and hidden tape recorders is deeply troubling. It goes against the basic tenets of parenting in the '90s: Trust your child, give him his space, explain your actions and never, ever lie to him.
June Gertig, 55, a District lawyer, said she struggled with her conscience over tape-recording the phone calls of her son, then a ninth-grader, as she weighed his right to privacy against her need to know about any drugs he was using. She decided that her son's safety was more important.
"I felt absolutely filthy," said Gertig, who noted with irony that she is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's the last thing we wanted to do turn into the KGB in our own house."
Other parents are not so torn.
"There is not a guilty bone in my body for doing this," said a Washington area parent who is taping her child's phone calls because of her concerns about substance abuse. "You get so desperate that you do anything to stop it. That's the bottom line. You fight fire with fire. ... You do jungle warfare. That's what we're dealing with here."
Like most of the parents interviewed, she agreed to talk about the issue on the condition that she not be identified.
"I want to trust her, but on the other [hand], I don't want her throwing her life away," said a 38-year-old mother who looked at her 14-year-old daughter's e-mail out of curiosity last month and discovered that the girl was boasting to friends about smoking marijuana.
Drug counselors and psychologists are split on whether such tactics are helpful.
Some say that testing and surveillance devices can become a crutch for parents who aren't able or willing to talk to their children about drugs or to confront them directly. And they warn that the spying can backfire, causing a teenager to become more estranged from his parents if he learns what they've been doing.
"I really encourage [parents] to get professional consultations if they suspect a drug or alcohol problem, and don't do anything that will further erode or destroy the communication and the trust that remains in the relationship," said Ariel White-Kovach, executive director of the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families, a drug treatment center in Minnesota.
But other specialists say that trying to have a frank conversation with a teenager who is abusing drugs usually fails because young addicts are skillful liars.
Patrick McConnell, director of youth services for Fairfax County's Alcohol and Drug Services, believes that surreptitious measures going through e-mail, monitoring phone calls, searching rooms are no substitute for professional help but that they can remove any doubt that a problem exists and help parents gain information that might help in getting their child into the appropriate treatment.
"It's important that parents don't buy into kids' trying to keep them out of their personal lives," McConnell said. "It's not an issue of trust."
Although Robin Ihara and her husband, Randy, a trade association executive, didn't know it at the time, things started to fall apart for Nathan in 1992, when he was in the sixth grade and began drinking beer filched from a friend's refrigerator.
When Randy Ihara's job brought the family from Florida to the Washington area in the spring of that year, Nathan's drinking continued, although it still escaped the scrutiny of his parents. Young addicts often are able to hide their drug and alcohol use from their parents for several years, counselors say.
But when Nathan entered high school in the fall of 1994, his problems became much more noticeable. The outgoing, popular boy began getting into fights at school. His circle of friends changed to an older, tougher crowd. At the slightest provocation, he kicked holes in the walls at home and stormed out, shouting in rage. He began running away, hiding out at a friend's house for a day or so. He was arrested for shoplifting and suspended from school several times.
Adolescence has struck, his parents told each other. This will pass. They tried therapy, but there was no improvement. They began to suspect drug or alcohol use, although Nathan denied it. A urine test revealed small traces of marijuana, but he told them he'd only smoked pot a few times.
Robin Ihara then began going to meetings for parents of troubled adolescents. There, she listened to other parents' accounts of their struggles with their children. Some mentioned that they were taping their children's calls, using inexpensive devices available at many stores.
Ihara didn't hesitate. Here, she thought, was a solution to her major problem. She was certain now that Nathan was on drugs, but how much? What kind? How often? She needed answers before she could figure out how to get him help.
"To me, it was an emergency situation," she said. "I had to do whatever I had to do."
Her oldest son helped her install the telephone recorder on the extension phone in his bedroom, and Ihara began listening to Nathan's conversations in the solitude of her home while he was at school.
What he said on the tapes horrified her. She had had no idea of the extent of his drug problems. She found out that he used marijuana and an assortment of other illicit substances several times a day. He was always high. Sometimes he reported to school and then sneaked out and caught the Metro to Southeast Washington, where he would buy drugs before returning to school in time for the end of classes.
Listening to her son's rambling talks with friends about his drug use, Ihara blamed herself. What kind of a parent am I? Why hadn't I known? She felt embarrassed to face the world, knowing what she knew about her son. She imagined that her friends and neighbors would wonder why she hadn't been able to prevent this catastrophe.
After a week or so, she couldn't bear to listen to the tapes anymore. Her husband couldn't bring himself to listen at all. So their oldest son, then 21, played the recordings late at night and then came down to his weeping mother in the dining room to relate their content.
"Bless his heart, he would come down and give me the conversation in a 'Beavis and Butt-head' rendition," she recalled. "He would say, 'You won't believe how dumb they sound, Mom' ... and that would allow me to laugh."
For other parents, the revelations were equally shocking.
One Fairfax mother who taped her 14-year-old son's telephone calls learned that his girlfriend was climbing through his window every night at 3 a.m. to have sex with him. She put a stop to the practice by notifying the girl's mother.
A 52-year-old Vienna high-tech executive taped his 15-year-old daughter's phone calls and played the recordings on his way to work. Listening to his daughter once a straight-A student and a cheerleader use profanity and discuss drug deals made him so upset that he often had to stop the car and take a long walk before he could compose himself for his first sales call.
Some parents say their main reaction to what they learned was not surprise, but a feeling of vindication.
A Centreville couple who used a special spray to detect marijuana in the family car said the results confirmed what they already knew in their hearts that their teenage son had relapsed only a few weeks after returning from a nine-month stay at a drug treatment center.
The mother, a 50-year-old librarian, remembers feeling grimly triumphant at seeing the faint red stain on the paper towels that her husband had wiped across the car's dashboard, the sure sign of marijuana's presence. "We know you're doing this, and this time, you [expletive], we got you," she recalls thinking.
The test results cemented the couple's decision to send their son back to the residential treatment program.
In some cases, though, the spying can have a paralyzing effect. Parents hesitate to confront their child about what they've learned because it would mean admitting they had been snooping.
The mother who has been reading her 14-year-old daughter's e-mail on the family computer knows that her daughter is lying to her but so far has not said anything to the girl. On a recent evening, her daughter came home looking glassy-eyed and slurring her words but denied she had been using drugs or alcohol. But the mother found some e-mail in which her daughter bragged to a friend that she'd gotten "loaded" that day.
"I've made phone calls to family and treatment centers and searched the Net, but I still feel at a loss as to what to do," the mother said. "I don't even know if I even have the right to go into her mail."
Although federal law bans unauthorized third-party wiretaps, courts generally have ruled that parents can record their minor children's phone calls or read their e-mail if they have reason to believe that their children's health or safety is in jeopardy, said Clifford Fishman, a law professor at Catholic University and an expert on wiretapping and surveillance issues. He warns, however, that parents could leave themselves open to a lawsuit if they play the tapes or show the e-mail to others.
When children discover they've been spied on, they are angry and hurt, parents say.
One mother said her son became suspicious a few months ago and asked her if she was listening to his phone calls. She denied she was. Then he discovered the tape recorder and "all hell broke loose," she said. "He really felt betrayed. We'd never lied to him before. He was devastated."
The mother is unrepentant. She knows from the phone calls she's heard that her son's drinking has declined. But the price has been high: Their once-close relationship has cooled considerably, although she's hoping it will heal with time.
It took Nathan only two weeks to find the cassette recorder behind the detergent box. He was searching his older brother's room for money.
"I knew what it was the second I saw it," the lanky teenager recalled.
He ripped the tape out of the machine and stalked down the stairs. After screaming at his mother, he stormed out of the house.
"I was not happy about it," said Nathan, now an 18-year-old with a wide, warm smile. He recalled feeling angry and betrayed at what his mother and older brother had done. At the same time, "I was kind of impressed with the way it was set up," he said, then grinned.
Was he concerned about what they had heard on the tapes? Nathan shrugged. "I didn't even care, to tell you the truth," he said. "I was so loaded up on stuff, I didn't think anybody could touch me."
After hearing the details of his drug use on the tapes, his parents sent Nathan to a rehabilitation center in Florida for a month. After that and several months at a halfway house in Louisiana, he attended an alternative Fairfax County high school and returned to Oakton High School to graduate with his class last June. He has been clean for three years, he said. He currently works at a Fairfax County restaurant.
Nathan said he wouldn't hesitate to tape his own child in similar circumstances, but only in the way his mother did as a last resort after confrontations and drug tests.
Is he glad his mother did it?
"Honestly?" Nathan said, pausing to think. "No."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company