Taking Accountability: Parental Responsibility for Children's Crimes

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In Philadelphia, a disturbing new trend has emerged. Flash mobs. Teens have amassed by connecting over social media and other technology. The actions start out benign, but quickly turn criminal, as the bored teens seek stimulation, often in the form of mass robberies of convenience stores or assault on tourists. Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael A Nutter, has placed the blame solely on parents proclaiming, “It is not enough to simply be a human ATM” (Branks, 2000). Under to parental liability laws, parents can be punished severely for children’s illegal actions. In 1903, Colorado was the first to enact laws holding parents responsible for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor or CDM’s” (FindLaw, 2013, pg. 1). CDM’s faded into history before making headlines in the 1960’s due to an upsurge in delinquent behavior. Courts reformed liability laws, referred to as the Restatement, creating a set of guidelines that distinguished actions between teenagers and young children, with the rationale that younger children were easier to control (Findlaw,2013). 42 other states and DC and other countries such as China, Japan, and India have laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor (FindLaw, 2013). Punishments include fines ranging from $500 to $10,000 or jail time. Parental liability statutes were originally written with good intentions, but their goals, inconsistencies, and language no longer vibe with modern culture.

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The ethical understanding that parents are accountable for their child’s action because they arguably have the most substantial impact on their children. “If parents do not invest enough of their time and commitment into pouring emotionally into their child, the child will struggle to learn how to regulate his emotions and interact with others appropriately” (Moges,2014, pg 1). This emotional regulation includes a child’s moral compass, and bad bearings reflect negatively on the parent. However unqualified control over a child’s development is arduous and especially so in a world connected through the internet, but at the time most parental liability laws were written the internet, or even telephones did not exist. That is not refuting the fact that parents can have a negative influence on their children and some children who are violent or commit crimes do so because parents abused them or saw their parents committing criminal acts (Mogoes,2014). But that does not account for children with stellar upbringings who get involved in the criminal underground. An extreme example of this is the Sasebo slashing, a murder committed in 2004 for by a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl with a respectable family and had an excellent academic record (Japanese, 2004). Since situations like this and far less extreme (a kid doing drug or other low-level misconducts) illustrate that when parents try to direct their children’s compasses north, the child may still end up pointing south.

While parents do play a significant role in their child’s development, there are outside influences that liability laws overlook. While Philadelphia Mayor Michael A Nutter may have some bases in his views, children have the added enormous influence of peer groups and social media. “The types of relationships they form differ from those they have with parents and siblings and teach them unique skills that impact their development (ASU, 2006). They have an unusually firm hold on lower income children, whose parents tend to work more leading them to be absent. Media’s influence is also up for debate. Plenty of people who believe that violent games and movies lead to violent children. “ In exposure to violent video games, juveniles have an active role. The young video game player becomes more exposed to violent content and adopts violent traits in his behavior” (Bernstein,2017, pg.1). Even music can affect a child’s decision to commit a crime. “If a juvenile realizes that his favorite gangsta rap music is associated with gang crime, he would likely link violence and crime to such music. The youth continues to deepen his relationship with gangsta rap and develops violent and criminal behavioral tendencies” (Bernstein, 2017, pg.1). While thinking that you can control what music or games your child is involved with seems trivial, it is not. Parents can not strictly monitor social media sites like youtube. It’s even harder when teens spend up to nine hours online everyday, excluding homework. Tweens spend only a few hours less, and the average thirteen year old checks social media 100 times a day. Even if a parent tried their hardest, they have no idea what a child listened to on Pandora, watched on youtube, saw on Instagram, or liked on Facebook. According to President Clinton, the proper solution is one that “doesn’t pretend that guns are the issue, that culture is the whole issue, that parents are the whole issue, that school safety is the whole issue, but deals with all of this together” (Graham, 2000). In a world of online culture that may be hard to fix.

It is also nearly impossible to determine criminal liability on a state and international level due to gross inconsistency. In China and Japan a child is held accountable for illegal actions at 14 years old, while in India majority is 7 years old, and in the US and Canada parental liability is terminated between the ages of 19-21, well after a child is deemed an adult (FindLaw, 2013). This is a huge difference from the common laws, rules transferred from medieval England to America, serve to protect parents. If a parent had no provable knowledge or participation in the crime, the blame would rest exclusively on the child’s shoulders. It seems that the medieval world understood that children are not their parents, and are therefore not controlled by them.

Besides the psychological and sociological debate of parental liability laws, the actual language of these statutes is criticized because of vague diction such as “reasonableness” and “gross negligence” they read more like an open ended question then a law. (Fabio, 2014). Such broad terms lead to jails time for a single mother who had “insignificant control” over her 16-year-old who stayed out past curfew. That is only the start of the inherently ill written laws. In addition to this, the vague diction also leads to the stigmatization of low-income households and single mothers. Low-income youth are more likely than middle- and high-income juveniles to become a member of a gang, attack someone or get in a fight, steal something worth more than 50 dollars (ASPE,2009). The rates of low-income adolescent exposure to violent crime are rising. Teenagers are more likely to be victims of violent crime than adults over the age of 25 and one-fourth of all of these offenses are committed by juveniles themselves (NCPC, n.d.). Not to mention that low-income parents often work more than one job, which doesn’t give them much time to supervise their children. There is also the what if parents had no knowledge of the crime their children had committed, could be people, in good faith, lock a mother away for 25 years because of a murder she had no idea about?(Samborn, 1996). Forms of punishment, such as fines also become unpayable for low-income household, which can be reasons for them to go to jail, which makes it harder for them to find a job or keep when, which only makes the vicious cycle of poverty and crime spin faster and faster. As Linda Chaplin put it “Defining the problem of juvenile delinquency regarding social factors suggested solutions requiring sweeping social reform through government intervention and resources, not legislation and finger pointing.”(Chapin,1997,pg.37) California’s parental liability law, Code 272, was challenged by a taxpayer’s suit, alleging that its enforcement as amended constituted a waste of public funds since the amended statute was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad on its face, and was also an unconstitutional interference with the right to privacy under both the federal and state constitutions (Chapin, 1997,pg.36). The court found it was “impossible” to provide “a comprehensive statutory definition of reasonable supervision and control,” but decided it was unnecessary. The court found that the concept of “reasonable” supervision was enough, the parent’s act or failure to act was at least criminally negligent

In conclusion, the decision to commit a crime is made entirely by a child and not the parent. Kahlil Gibran, an 1800’s writer, explains it quite eloquently “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls’ dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.” If a parent has adequately done their job and the child has a strong sense of right and wrong it is the child and only the child who has chosen to commit a crime. People may argue that a child must be sensible, a trait not abundant in youth, but as shown before the age of “sensibility” varies from country to country, state to state. Damning a parent on “guilt by association” is no reason for jail time. Many people choose to see past this because how can an innocent child be capable of actual criminal intent? Do you think any parent raises their child with the intent for them to become the next Ted Bundy?

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