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Debbie Pedrick squints at the Christmas card she sent friends this season.

Gathered around Pedrick are her five children - a daughter, 21, and four sons, from a stocky 19-year-old to a boy of 12 with brown bangs.Pedrick stares past the posed smiles.

"Sometimes, I wish I could divorce them," the 38-year-old Pasco County, Fla., woman says. "It comes to this: When I get home from work, if there are no police cars in the front yard, it's going to be a good night."

Because her children refused to go to school, Pedrick was convicted of a misdemeanor in January 1994, sent to parenting classes and ordered to perform community service.

Now, with two of the boys in trouble with the law, Pedrick, who works as a medical secretary, could be ordered to come up with thousands of dollars in restitution.

Pedrick says her husband, who died a decade ago, beat their children. She fears she may have been too soft on them, trying to compensate for their suffering. Still, she cannot understand how they got so far off course.

"I look at them and I think, `I'm not like that. I didn't teach them to stay home and be bums. I didn't rob a house."'

"Society blames the parents," Pedrick says. "And yes, parents have a responsibility. But to what point? I cannot be there 24 hours a day."

Increasingly, the legal system is holding parents accountable for their children's acts.

A woman is spending two months in a north Florida jail after failing to get her daughter, 15, to go to school. A Jacksonville judge sent a 26-year-old man home to his parents, who are required to hold him to a nightly curfew until his trial next month for having sex with a young girl. In South Carolina, a 15-year-old girl is hooked to her parents by a court-ordered, 2-foot tether until she is sentenced for breaking into a house.

Critics say such methods fail to force kids to take responsibility and tend to punish parents in tenuous circumstances - households where there is one adult, domestic abuse or financial hardship.

But others say that for too long, some parents have thrown up their hands as their kids run wild.

"A child raised in a parent's household is the product of that upbringing," says Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who handles juvenile cases. "Therefore, if the child ends up in trouble, there's a high likelihood that there's a deficit in parenting."

The public's mood is clear, says state Sen. Bill Bankhead, a Jacksonville Republican. "My constituents are sick of it. Parental involvement is a great predictor of a child's success. People ought to be responsible for their kids."

Ramona Lee McDowell is almost halfway through a 60-day sentence in the Clay County, Fla., jail.

McDowell is 42, an unemployed single mom. She is in jail because her 15-year-old daughter, Misha, rarely goes to class.

It has long been a crime for parents to fail to get their children to school, but McDowell's jail sentence is unusual. "It's certainly one of the harshest we have ever heard of for truancy," says Brewser Brown, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Education.

But authorities say McDowell's case is extreme. Punishment came after McDowell rejected every offer of help, according to Clay County Judge Richard Townsend. McDowell declined to be interviewed.

Every morning for a month, school officials went to McDowell's home to wake her two children and urge them to go to school, half a block away, he says. For nearly two years, McDowell was on probation for her children's truancy. She was supposed to walk them to school and attend parenting classes and counseling.

Repeatedly, Townsend says, neither condition was met. He said he didn't know why.

Meanwhile, McDowell's son turned 16 and dropped out of school, as the law allows. This year, her daughter missed 53 of 81 school days. Of the 28 days she showed up, Misha McDowell was tardy 22 times.

"I exhausted every other remedy," says Townsend, who sentenced Misha's mother to jail on Jan. 4. "This was a unique sentence, and I hope I will never have to use it again."

In the past five years, two dozen states have passed laws increasing parental responsibility.

Some call for parents to be counseled. Others levy fines for skipping parent-teacher conferences.

The law Oregon created last July may be the toughest. If a child commits a crime, a parent can be charged with failure to supervise and fined $1,000.

In Summerville, S.C., Richard and Deborah Harter have been attached by a tether to their daughter for more than a month.

Under a judge's order, one of the parents must go to school, to meals and to bed attached to Tonya Kline, a 15-year-old who is awaiting sentencing for breaking into a home, truancy and shoplifting.

The unusual arrangement has drawn worldwide publicity to the little town. It also has kept Tonya in school and away from late-night trips out of the house.

The case intrigues Pinellas Juvenile Judge Frank Quesada.

"If you handcuff two enemies together in the ocean, they will learn to synchronize swim," he says.

In Florida, the legislature toughened laws for parents when it overhauled the state's juvenile justice system in 1994.

Legislators lifted a $2,500 restitution limit for parents of children who commit property crimes. They allowed judges to order parents into classes, counseling and community service. They said judges may find parents in contempt of court, order them to pay for the cost of holding their kids in custody and garnish the benefits of parents on welfare.

Proponents say the laws are meant for parents who skip their children's court appearances, won't attend parenting classes and don't visit their kids in detention.

"I don't think the law wants to punish a parent who tries," claims Rep. Elvin Martinez, D-Tampa.

Quesada has issued arrest warrants for parents who refuse to come with their children to court. He has ordered parents to undergo urine tests for drugs or alcohol. He ruled that the parents of a child who burned down a house pay $250,000 restitution.

"I'm sick and tired of them trying to dump their kids on us, for the state to raise them," he says.

Other judges still avoid the most serious penalties they now may impose on parents.

"On paper it looks good, but that's typical of a lot of legislation," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Vincent Giglio. "The bottom line is if you put parents in jail, they lose their jobs. Then they're (the family) going to end up in worse trouble."

What purpose, Elizabeth Drake wonders, will be served by sending the mother of a truant to jail? Will that get the child to class?

"It satisfies our desire to punish," responds Drake, executive vice president of the Parent Network/Florida Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "But it doesn't do anything to help a mother and child gain the skill to get along."

State officials have not tracked how the 1994 law has affected parents' and children's behavior.

What has become of Misha McDowell, the truant whose mother is in jail?

Judge Townsend was uncertain where she was staying. And he did not know whether she was going to school regularly. He did think she now has a baby of her own. "I'm not certain that there is that much hope for (Misha) to complete her education," he says.

The future also is uncertain for Debbie Pedrick's children.

Her daughter never finished high school, Pedrick says. Her oldest son earned his high school equivalency diploma while he was serving time in a facility for juvenile delinquents. He's out now, but still in trouble with the law since his restitution hasn't been paid.

The three youngest boys are going to school. Two are doing well. But the third, 17, is facing grand theft charges - and the threat of more court costs and restitution bills, Pedrick says.

"I still have two younger ones to worry about," she says. "I'm scared."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)