As juvenile justice issues consume the courts, the latest question is not what to do about the children but their parents.
From cities to tony suburbs, communities have adopted ordinances that truly hold parents legally responsible for their delinquent children. If a parent doesn't raise their child right, within some socially accepted community norm - however that is defined - that parent is brought up on charges. Ten states last year adopted parental responsibility laws which means that if a parent fails to control their child the parent can be jailed, fined, forced to attend parenting class or obligated to perform community service. The belief is that involving parents, even if it means dragging them into court, is one way to curb juvenile crime.It isn't a new concept. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor has been a crime for decades, except parents were rarely hauled into court for it. That's changing.
The New York Times reports that Louisiana parents can be fined $1,000 or spend six months in jail if found guilty of improper supervision of a minor. In California, parents face contempt charges if they refuse ordered counseling or parenting classes. Idaho parents have to pay for their child's detention costs. In West Virginia, if a child is caught defacing a public building, the parents can be fined $5,000.
But is it legal? Critics call the parental-responsibility ordinances vague and perhaps unconstitutional. Rather than curb juvenile delinquency or crime, it places a greater burden on parents who are already overwhelmed.
Ruth Reese, a lecturer in counselor education and human development at Arizona State University West, says making the parents criminally responsible doesn't solve the problem but good parenting skills might. Punishing the parent "isn't going to make them a better parent. So many of our families are stressed. It would do more damage."
Andy Hall, ASU project director for the Urban Studies Center, agrees. Most of delinquents come from parents who work for low wages, are given little supervision and live in neighborhoods plagued with social and economic problems and few constructive recreational outlets. It's difficult for these parents to compete with the influence in the streets and parents feel that they can only do so much, he said.
While Hall said he is not familiar with parental responsibility laws, he said it's "unrealistic to charge the parents. It's like double jeopardy. Most can't make restitution or pay the fine and it would just add to their burden which is considerable already."
Hall said sanctions of community service or parenting classes may be beneficial but not jail or fines.
A key test of these parenting laws comes next week in St. Clair Shores, Mich., where parents are being taken to court for their 16-year-old son's burglaries, which included the theft of jewelry, stereo equipment, a TV, a cellular phone, a .25-caliber gun, a .38-caliber gun and more than $16,000 in cash.
The son had become such a problem that his parents resorted to padlocking the basement storage room and the master bedroom so the son wouldn't steal from them.
St. Clair Shores has a parental responsibility ordinance that says parents must exercise "reasonable control" of their children and prevent them from "committing any delinquent act" or "associating with known juvenile delinquents." Parents could be fined up to $500 and given jail sentences from 30 to 90 days.
When the St. Clair Shores parents were faced with $70,000 in civil liability for their son's acts, to go along with a $100 criminal fine, they decided to fight the ordinance in court.
Can the government tell a family how to raise their children and punish parents if they don't? We're about to find out. The big question is how do you determine whether a parent "failed to exercise reasonable parental control"?
Raising children to be decent, responsible human beings is never simple. Despite the of best of intentions, sometimes parents fail miserably. And yet, society's deep frustration with juvenile crime must be acknowledged.
The government doesn't exist to raise other people's children. In fact, it hasn't been too hospitable lately in helping struggling parents raise their children on assistance programs. The message today, or until there's a contrary court decision, is that if parents raise incorrigible children, the government is prepared to penalize the parent.
It may take a village to raise a child, but a village would be foolish not to defend its property or its people against criminal acts.