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    A Times Editorial

    Prosecuting teenage lovers

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001

    To read from their love notes, Joey Stellini, then 16, and his girlfriend, 15, may not have planned for her pregnancy, but they were eager to deal with it together. He attended doctor's visits with her, and she gave him a jewelry box at Christmas with copies of her sonogram pasted inside. "I love you, Joey," she wrote him. "And so does your son."

    Teen pregnancies are seldom easy to handle, but what has happened in this tale of youthful romance is jarring by any standard. Having been notified by the girl's guardians, Pinellas-Pasco state attorney Bernie McCabe responded to the teenagers' predicament with a felony charge for Joey Stellini. The charge: committing a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 16 -- namely, Joey's girlfriend.

    The result is that a baby boy was born on April 3, and the father might go to jail. Can this possibly make sense?

    Joey's mother, Hope Rogers, is understandably upset. "This is garbage," she told a reporter. "I'm not saying what they did was right. But kids do stupid things every day. They're going to ruin my son's life for doing something teenagers have always done? They can go to the high school right now and lock up half the 16-year-olds in the county."

    Mrs. Rogers can be forgiven for her exaggeration, but her point is valid. One of the reasons counselors and doctors and parents spend so much time trying to caution teenagers about the repercussions of sexual activity is that teenagers frequently engage in it. The law under which McCabe chose to prosecute Joey was intended to punish the actions of considerably older men who prey on innocent young girls. But what Joey and his girlfriend did, by everyone's admission, was consensual and part of their youthful romance.

    McCabe, through his chief assistant Bruce Bartlett, has offered only a superficial defense of his actions. The guardians, Bartlett said, "had no options available to them but to go to law enforcement. You have to look at it from the parents' perspective."

    No options but law enforcement? How about their minister?

    The guardians are now trying to suggest that Joey had abandoned his responsibility as a father, but their own actions suggest otherwise. They called for and received a court injunction on Feb. 8 preventing Joey from seeing the girl. Now they want him arrested for not supporting her?

    What these two teenagers did was irresponsible, not criminal, and now they are trying to deal responsibly with the consequences of their actions. Their baby needs responsible parents who are willing to nurture him. Putting the father in jail hardly serves that interest.

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