Laura Sumey sounded exasperated. Her life in Takoma, Wash., has been a spinning wheel of personal problems: a broken marriage, nervous breakdowns and dependence on public assistance.
Then, last summer, two teen-age daughters sued her.Under a Washington state law, when families are in conflict, a child can petition the court for an alternative residence. In effect, the girls sued Sumey and her husband for incompatibility and "mal-parenting." "I thought I had seen trouble before, but this last year has been a nightmare," Laura Sumey says.
Wendy Helander sounded puzzled. When she first joined the Unification Church, she called her parents and told them she had found a life style that supported all the moral lessons they had been teaching. They told her she was brainwashed.
After she joined a seminary of the church, her parents asked her to go to lunch. She ended up in a cottage with a professional deprogrammer for two days. Her parents sued the church, then Helander sued the deprogrammer. Wendy Helander won, but within months her parents again brought her to a deprogrammer. Helander now has filed suit in a New York state court against four deprogrammers. The suit also names her parents, charging that they violated her First Amendment rights.
In Boulder, Colo., a 24-year-old has sued his parents for $350,000 damages on the grounds of inadequate parenting and mental abuse. His parents have taken their case to the "Tomorrow" show on television.
Laura Sumey, Wendy Helander and the Colorado man are participants in a developing national trend, in which children are turning to lawsuits, as a way of defining their rights, seeking retribution like any other client.
The catalyst for these cases has been the growing public discussion of family problems. "I feel it is a chain reaction to the attention cases of child abuse have received," says David Howard of the National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis. "But I only see these particular cases as a trend insofar as people are becoming more aware of their rights in general."
The same kinds of problems crop up in discussions with legal observers, attorneys and family specialists all over the country. The largest number of cases so far are lawsuits by children who joined cults, were placed in deprogramming sessions with their parents' consent and then sued their parents and the deprogrammers for interfering with their First Amendment rights and kidnapping.
In the last couple of years, as the number of lawsuits in the country escalated to seven million annually, children-vs-parents cases have grabbed attention. Most lawyers view the scattered cases with watchful interest but express skepticism as to their ultimate impact.
"Clearly this is an area of law mildly interesting to lawyers because of the tradition of English law that treated children as chattel," says Ed Polk of the Children's Rights Center in San Francisco.
David Gilman, a lawyer working with the American Bar Association's eight-year study of juvenile justice reform, views intrafamilial suits "only as a last resort. We don't urge that kids sue their parents."
Children's-rights advocacy groups are appalled by the attention some of the cases are receiving. "Frankly we are not enthusiastic about the trend," says Peter Bull of the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law. "It hurts our advocacy for specific rights for poor children because this particular movement mars the perspective of the judges and legislatures. The cases are fascinating but misleading."
The Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, which has represented institutionalized children in class action suits against the government, is also saying hands off. "In our view most of these cases have been frivolous," says attorney Daniel Yohalem.
Yet, as the family itself is juggled and restructured, domestic laws may be reshaped. In the next few years, children's lawsuits are expected to increase.
In the cult-related cases, parents are coincidentally included. Jeremiah S. Gutman, who has represented a dozen cult members for the American Civil Liberties Union, says, "Parents are often exploited by professional kidnappers and pay those people dearly for deprogramming. [A suit is] basically an injunction against doing it again."
David Gordan, the Tacoma, Wash. attorney for the Sumeys, feels the state legislature will rethink the law that allows children to petition for a separate residence. "It's a bad omen for the future of the family when children can go down to juvenile court, get a case workers and file a suit for conflict. The law won't last. But remember under this law the parents can sue the children also."
Laura Sumney does'nt know where to begin with her side of the story. It tumbles out, how her 16-year-old daughter ran away from Tacoma to Indianapolis. After three months she came home, but rebelled against stricter supervision. Her mother called the police, the daughter went to a receiving home, then ran away, ended up in another receiving home and then moved in with a young man.
For a minute the rushed chronology stops. "I just couldn't afford the $70 an hour," says Sumey, referring to the cost for the first around of legal maneuvers. Less than six months after the first daughter, then 15, petitioned for a new home, the second, two years younger, followed.
"So I corrected them. Does that amount to conflict in the home?" asks Sumey. The youngest daughter is temporarily home, but Sumey is required to pay the state $112.50 a month for the older one's room and board in a receiving home. Sumey talks to her oldest daughter, but not about the suit. "She was sick recently and I took her a plant. The conversation was about the future, what we could do together. She knows I want her home."
Wendy Helander was 18, a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, when she joined the Unification Church. "I could have gone to college when I was 16; I had enough credits and was eager to broaden my knowledge of people," says Helander. "But I finished another half year of high school, when I didn't need the credits, just for the sake of my parents. I stuck it out." At school she studied a variety of historic and contemporary Christian communities.
During a weekend with a Unification group, she called her mother. "I was anxious to go home and tell the neighbors,'" says Helander. "I went home to Christmas anyway, and my parents were really skeptical. My mothers kept mentioning mind control and said, 'You know what happened to Patty Hearst.'" Helander still joined, and her parents made two attempts at deprogramming.
After the first session, handled by Ted Patrick, who has been the object of several suits, Helander did sign a paper denouncing the church. After the second, which she says took three months in a series of homes, she ran away with a church-member-turned-deprogrammer. "I love my parents and feel compassion and pity for them because they don't understand and they are spending all this money," says Helander.
Last September, her parents signed a statement saying they wouldn't take her from the church unwillingly agin. "I saw them 10 times during 1978. I feel we are coming closer, even though they pass out leaflets denouncing the church. I write them letters, even apologizing for what they are going through. They are still my parents."
This trickle of children suing their parents might evolve into a flood of litigation. "This area will be affected by issues such a abortion, the rights and responsibilities of the extended family, the Lee Marvin case," says David Gilman of the ABA.
"Every time we go through fundamental changes, some changes end up being played out in judical procedures." CAPTION: Illustration, "If I make you drink your milk you'll SUE me?" Drawing by W. Miller; copyright (c) 1978, The New Yorker Magazine Inc.