October 19, 2009

What's the Proper Punishment for the Parents of 'Balloon Boy'?

SHARE: You know the sick, panicked fear that your child may be in danger? I'm not sure the parents of "balloon boy'' do.

They claimed their 6-year-old was stuck on a hot-air balloon floating across Colorado last week. But the only physical danger he was ever in? The risk of being stampeded by cameramen waved in by his shameless father -- a storm-chaser so high on the crack of national attention that after his 15 minutes on the show "Wife Swap" elapsed, he pretended his son had been carried away like the Wizard of Oz. (Apparently, the stunt was intended to help the dad close the deal on a reality show pitch that would have presented him as a mad scientist. At least that part is believable.)

On Sunday, the sheriff who had been defending the couple – because who would pretend their kid might have died just to get a little drama going? -- said he'd concluded that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Criminal charges, he said, may include conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. But what kind of punishment would fit this particular crime?

Given that local law enforcement already wasted an ocean of adrenaline on these people, and spent big bucks on a rescue effort that ruined a local farmer's wheat crop and shut down Denver International Airport for several hours, I'm not so sure about throwing away more money on prosecution or incarceration. One story mentioned a fine of as much as $500,000; good luck collecting that.

After all they've been through with this family, I give the authorities huge credit for encouraging the child's mom to get out of the situation, though she's turned them down, at least for now. And maybe the worst of it is that it's hard to think of a penalty for the parent that wouldn't further traumatize the child, who has presumably already been sentenced to another dozen years or so with his lunatic father, who will go unnamed here: Take that, oh Munchausen by proxy syndrome sufferer of the reality TV age.

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