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Careful when punishing parents

If the sins of parents sow sorrow in the lives of children, how much turnabout is fair play? The Utah Legislature is attempting to answer that while considering two bills that would penalize parents for the misdeeds of their delinquent youngsters.

Lawmakers should walk a careful line in doing so.In theory, it sounds reasonable to hold mom and dad accountable for acts committed by their offspring. And if the parents are consistently negligent, that may be justified.

But most everyone knows good, conscientious parents who struggle with wayward children despite diligent efforts to point them on a responsible course. Should they have salt poured into wounds already bleeding? Probably not.

HB320, sponsored by Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, would fine parents whose children continually skip school. It also would enable police to ticket AWOL students for truancy and possibly impound vehicles they use to do so.

SB116 is sponsored by Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake. It would allow judges to hold parents financially accountable, up to $2,000, for restitution owed by a juvenile. The court would have to find that parents or guardians did not "make a reasonable effort to restrain the wrongful conduct of the minor."

That is a bit vague. Though courts make countless judgments on domestic matters with regularity, determining the degree of parental effort could be difficult. No doubt there would be some clear-cut violations where parents merited responsibility. Other cases would be difficult to call, however.

Both bills are designed to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Bourdeaux's would not punish parents until they had repeated opportunities to cooperate with schools and police. That is reasonable.

Two concerns should be considered. First, the possibility that inadvertently punishing well-meaning parents may further drive a wedge between relationships with teenage children for whom they already have animosity. Second, that youngsters should be responsible and punished for their own acts and not have others stand in their stead.

In 1995, the Salt Lake City Council passed an ordinance aimed at forcing parents to take responsibility for their misbehaving children or face sanctions. Since then, less than half a dozen parents have been charged with any crime in connection with the law.

Nobody will argue that parents should teach and encourage their kids to behave. But compelling positive parental results by statute sometimes punishes adults doing their best to raise children in a challenging world.