El Mirage nudism case raises parenting questions

Children have a right to be safe in their own homes.

Parents have a right to raise their children the way they see fit.  Those two rights collided in an ongoing El Mirage parental custody battle.  But the reason for the debate isn’t a religious belief, an incident of sexual abuse or a question of health.

The reason is nudism.

The questions raised – whether parents have a right to practice nudism in their own home; whether children need to be protected from it; whether law enforcement can seek to stop it – put a new twist on a long-standing issue.  When El Mirage police found out that a mother and stepfather were naked around the woman’s two adolescent boys, they investigated and recommended the parents be charged with a crime.

The case raised issues far beyond nudism.

Experts say the investigation illustrated a quandary that can apply to any lifestyle that society decides is controversial: Which beliefs are outside the law?

The case

Almost everyone would agree that authorities should step in when a child is being physically, sexually or emotionally abused. A stranger will likely be arrested if he takes his clothes off in front of a child, even if there’s no sexual misconduct. It gets murkier when the person stripping down is the child’s parent.  The El Mirage case started in Prescott Valley in November when a 13-year-old told his father he was uncomfortable at his mother’s home.

The 13-year-old said the couple continued to be nude in the home even though he told them he and his 11-year-old brother were unhappy with it.  His father called authorities.  El Mirage police interviewed the family and were certain there was no sexual misconduct. The boys’ mother and stepfather said that they did not regularly practice a nudist lifestyle and that the boys had only seen them nude by accident. Child Protective Services declined to intervene.

But police still pursued a possible criminal case. Someone had to step in and advocate for the boys, Assistant Police Chief Bill Louis said.  Police turned the case over to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. The case hinged on wording in Arizona’s indecent-exposure statute: someone is “reckless” about whether the other person would be “offended or alarmed” by nudity. Indecent exposure is a felony when the victim is 14 or younger.

The law

Most indecent-exposure cases involve strangers. Someone drops his pants near a park or is naked in his home but stands in front of an open window as children walk by. The El Mirage case was unusual.  Robert J. Campos, a former Maricopa County sex-crimes prosecutor, was skeptical of the investigation.  “As far as a criminal case, I think it’s a real stretch,” said Campos, now a defense attorney.

Arizona’s indecent-exposure statute technically applies, but prosecutors had to decide whether they wanted to intervene when it was unclear the boys were traumatized and the couple didn’t appear to have sexual motivations, Campos said.  “I just think it’s an issue of sensitivity as parents and using good judgment and realizing that this is very embarrassing for the boys,” Campos said. “I think it’s a real slippery slope when the government wants to dictate to a parent that they can’t be nude in their own home.”

Nudists’ rights

As police and prosecutors wrangled over the legal issue, the case raised questions about the nudist lifestyle and parenting.  “You do not know how familiar this story is,” said Bob Morton, executive director of the Naturist Action Committee, a non-profit that advocates for nudist legal issues.  He said battling ex-spouses and family members often try to use one parent’s decision to practice nudism as an issue in custody cases.

Parents have a right to decide what goes on inside their homes unless there’s criminal conduct, Morton said. Nudism doesn’t apply.  Practicing nudists acknowledge it’s a controversial lifestyle, especially when children haven’t been raised in it.  “We do believe that respecting boundaries and communicating is critical to a successful nude-recreation experience,” said Erich Schuttauf, executive director of the American Association for Nude Recreation.

He said parents who decide to try out naturist activities or to visit a resort should talk to their children first. If a child seems uncomfortable, parents should let the child’s views dictate their plans.  That could mean enjoying a nudist vacation without the child or stripping down only when the child isn’t around, Schuttauf said.

Parents vs. children

The El Mirage case involves issues that extend beyond a parent’s decision to practice nudism. Tough questions, legal and societal, arise when a parent promotes a certain lifestyle or makes a controversial choice for the child.

Members of a fundamentalist religion may encourage their young daughters to marry older men with multiple wives. Parents may treat their child’s cancer with alternative medicine rather than chemotherapy because of religious beliefs. Parents may opt to have their children skip flu shots. A divorced parent may allow a significant other with a criminal history to move into the house.

Legal experts and child psychologists say it’s difficult to decide when authorities should intervene.

A child may be unaware his lifestyle is outside the norm and may be more traumatized if an outsider comments or if his parents are arrested, said Vicki Panaccione, a Florida-based child psychologist who specializes in parent-child relationships. “(That) the kids feel safe, secure and taken care of is sometimes more important than the decision that’s made,” she said.  Still, a child’s discomfort should never be ignored, Panaccione said.

Alan E. Kazdin, a child psychologist and director of Yale University’s Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, agrees.  Children who are uncomfortable with their parents’ lifestyles are more likely to engage in risky behavior, spend more time outside the home and keep secrets from their parents, he said.

Government regulations don’t exist for every possible aspect of being a good parent.  A mother might lay her baby on his stomach, despite studies that show it puts the child at greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome. No law exists to stop or punish the parent.  But more government regulations for parents would be considered controversial in a nation that prides itself on myriad freedoms, said Campos, the former prosecutor.  “Part of being free means accepting the possible harm that comes with it,” he said. “You just can’t legislate the harm out of the world.”

Four months after police turned the nudist case over to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, prosecutors gave police their answer.   The mother and the stepfather will not be arrested or prosecuted.

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