Punishing parents 'no solution' for poor

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Recent moves to make parents legally responsible for the misdemeanours of their offspring are catching on, but opponents of the new laws say they fail to get to the root of crime and merely penalise the middle classes.

In California, vandalism, truancy and curfew violations by children could mean an appointment for their parents in a courtroom. A new state law requires them to accompany their children into court or face criminal charges themselves. The parents can also be ordered to pay restitution or perform community service if their child is convicted.

"I don't want to say there are all these negligent parents out there and their kids are running rampant on the streets, but there is a small minority of juveniles who are committing crimes," said Dan Felizzatto, legislative aide to California Assemblyman Phil Hawkins, the author of the law.

"Let's hold the parents accountable when they havebeen negligent in their duties as parents, but let's also hopethis gets the parents more involved in the lives of their children."

Eighteen states passed laws last year that make parents pay when children aged under 18 commit a crime. Parents of children who paint graffiti on public buildings in West Virginia face a fine of up to $5,000, for example, and for parents of youngsters who violate the curfew in Oregon, it is up to $1, 000.

One father whose child was convicted of destroying property was required to coach a weekend sports team. A mother whose son played truant had to attend school with him. In the most celebrated case, a judge ordered a rebellious 15-year-old to be shackled to her mother for a month.

More such laws have been proposed. Mr Hawkins, who represents Los Angeles, wants the mothers and fathers of delinquent children sent to parenting classes. California governor Pete Wilson announced in January a proposal to fine parents if their child violates a local curfew.

"Parents are morally responsible for the behaviour of their minor children, " Governor Wilson told lawmakers at the time. "They should be legally responsible for the costs as well."

Juvenile crime experts call such measures superficial. "There is often an attempt in this country to try to find the magic solution to intractable problems, including the problem of juvenile crime," said Mark Soler, president of the National Centre for Youth Law. "It's usually a solution public officials can implement quite easily and not really worry about raising people out of poverty or improving schools, which are much harder." He said forcing parents to pay for crimes committed by their children may be effective in intact middle-class families, but not in the low-income, single-parent or abusive homes where juvenile delinquency tends to breed.

"Many of the parents who are going to get blamed are parents who have problems of their own," said Mr Soler, a former elementary school teacher.

"We need to hold the kids responsible. They need to learn that they will be held accountable for their behaviour and, to the extent that parental involvement will be helpful, we ought to get the parents involved."

But Mr Felizzatto said that, with parents working longer hours or struggling to raise their families alone, the courts are forced to step in. Victims, too, he said, deserve restitution and the reassurance that they will not be victimised again.

"There are some parents who just don't care but, in the majority of cases, you have a child who may be perfectly well behaved at home but, the next thing you know, he's sitting there with some friends and he throws a rock and it goes through a window," he said.

"That kid is not a terrible juvenile delinquent. He's just a kid. But somebody's got to pay for the window."

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