SHIRLEY HANSEN sat there, on the television talk show, not saying much, looking like a most ordinary mother, with white hair, a nice face, hands in her lap, lawyer at her side.He did the taking about the case. He said he did not, of course, want to try the case in the media, so he didn't get very specific about details, but you could tell right off that the studio audience, most of whom were women, were with Shirley Hansen all the way and thought her kid had some nerve.
Shirley Hansen's kid, Tom, is 24, and he is suing his mother and father. His lawyer, John Taussig, says Tom was referred to him by his psychiatrist. Tom has mental problems.He is claiming it is his parents' fault and he is suing them for $350,000 damages. This is not happening in "Soap." It's happening in Boulder, Colo., and both Taussig and the Hansens' lawyer, Greg Martin, believe the case could go to a jury trial this summer.
"Tom has been a fairly nonproductive person as far as the conventional expectations of a person of his age," Taussig said in a telephone interview. "He's not been meaningfully employed and not (college) educated. He's been diagnosed as having a mental impairment. The guts of the case is that it was the result of inadequate parenting. We're alleging a pattern of psychological deprivation that we're alleging has a causative relationship with his impaired mental health." Taussig says Tom Hansen has been voluntarily hospitalized in the Boulder Psychiatric Institute and that his psychiatrist has diagnosed his condition as schizophrenic paranoid. "He's an articulate, intelligent human being. He's just not performed the way society expects him to perform."
Taussig contends that Tom Hansen was psychologically battered by his parents. "We blame it more on Dad than we do on Mom but we blame Mom for acquiescing and going along with it. But we blame Dad for specific acts of battering the child." One incident cited in court papers, says Taussig, occurred the time Tom Hansen was caught smoking a marijuana cigarette. Taussig says he was "restricted to two meals a day and hard labor for a while. Something else came up and he was banished from the household at 17 and left to his own resources..."
"It's a ridiculous case," says Greg Martin, who is representing Shirley and Richard Hansen. "The prevailing school of thought is that this (schizophrenic paranoia) is a condition that's inherited rather than brought on by environment," he said in a telephone interview. "The facts are going to show these parents did everything they could to assist him, knowing he had this condition... That's the unfortunate thing about this suit. It's created a real division between the parents and the child."
Both Shirley and Richard Hansen are scientists employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. "How are the Hansens taking it? It's absolutely horrible," says Martin. "Mr. Hansen is just beside himself. She is handling it a little better than he is. It's really hard on her."
Both Martin and Taussig say that under Colorado law a child who is paralyzed, for example, as a result of parental error, can sue his parents for damages.
"I think if it did go so far as a jury and if the jury came back with a verdict (favoring Tom Hansen) and the verdict was upheld at a higher level, i.e., the Supreme Court, I don't think it would be an earth-shattering precedent," says Martin.
Both lawyers say this is the first case they know of where a child is suing his parents claiming they are to blame for his mental problems. "I think in Wisconsin parents are suing a child for failure to respond in the way they felt he or she should have," says Martin.
"If you let your imagination run, you can see all kinds of ramifications. The bottom line is in an intrafamily situation, absent conduct that is really out of line in the eyes of the average person. Intrafamily conduct shouldn't be reviewed in courts."
"I thought it was just another battered child case," says Taussig. "But no one else has so simplifed it... The thing I have trouble with is separating the physical and the psychological. If you get up every morning and tell your daughter she's the ugliest kid in the world and just awful, that's just as bad as slapping her around."
Yes, it is. And maybe it's worse. A kid who is slapped around by her mother can hate her mother. A kid who is told she is awful and ugly can end up hating herself.
Martin says if Tom Hansen wins, the precedent would be earth-shattering, and that might not be much of an overstatement. That kind of court decision could lick the birth control problem once and for all.
The implications of children being able to sue parents for something as vague as inadequate parenting are so frightening that the temptation is to dismiss the Hansen suit out of hand. It is a murky case at best. The evidence cited by Taussig is hardly overwhelming. But we do know that parents can do vicious things to their children, that they can destroy their confidence and selfesteem, that they can psychologically cripple them.
It's a little too simple to say the courts don't belong in the home. They go into homes routinely these days. Courts are one way we have found of holding parents accountable for doing physical damage to their children. Courts have found ways of drawing the line between discipline and physical abuse. Taussig now is asking a court to draw the line between discipline and psychological abuse.
Taussig may have a bad case, but he has a good point. He uses inadequate parenting and psychological battering interchangeably and that may not serve his cause.It may be that inadequate parenting is so vague a concept as to be useless. It conveys a sense of benign neglect rather than actionable cruelty. It may be that psychological battering can be defined. It will be tougher and more subtle to define than physical abuse. It's a concept that raises complicated social and legal questions. But we do know that parents can abuse children psychologically, either through ignorance or cruelty, and there should be ways of making them responsible for their actions.