Laying Blame: Parental Responsibility for Children's Misdeeds

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After not studying for a test, a 10-year-old calls in a fake bomb threat to his school.

An unarmed 15-year-old steals a stereo from an electronics store to resell.

Over a two year period, a 13-year-old sexually assaults an 8-year-old neighbor.

A 17-year-old takes a sawed-off shotgun to school and kills several students and teachers.

In which of these cases, if any, should the parents be held responsible for their children's acts? And the phrase "held responsible" goes beyond fines or parenting classes—it means incarceration.

Slamming Prison Gates on Parents

In reality, the answer depends in part on which state the incident occurred in. To curb gang behavior, California made it a crime for parents to fail to "exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control" over their kids. In short, California parents can serve prison time for failing to supervise their children. And at least 17 other states have similar laws. In fact, at least 36 states hold parents responsible to some extent when their kids break the law.

Highly publicized juvenile crimes—like school shootings—have increased the awareness of parental responsibility. However, the concept of parents answering for their children's actions is by no means new. Legislation holding parents financially responsible for their kids stepping out of line dates back 150 years. Although damage amounts are often limited, parents across the nation can be sued for their children's crimes.

State Laws Go Beyond Grounding in Punishing Parents

Today, many states have followed California's lead on parental incarceration. Other potential repercussions for parents include paying juvenile court fees and participating in counseling programs. States like Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas require parents and juvenile offenders to perform community service. However, this can also be in addition to parental incarceration.

The Child Access Prevention (or CAP) laws specifically address kids and guns. These laws penalize adults with a prison sentence and/or fine when firearms fall into underage hands. Nationally, about a quarter of the states have CAP or similar laws.

City Ordinances Go Outside the Ordinary

Local governments have also passed ordinances to encourage parental responsibility. For example, Cincinnati guardians of unsupervised minors can be forced to take a parenting class, perform community service, and/or pay a fine.

Schools are on the bandwagon too. Public schools are increasingly holding parents more accountable for their children's actions. In Virginia, parents of a suspended student must meet with school officials or risk paying a fine.

Other Influences on Kids: Opponents of Parental Punishment Laws

Such laws aren't lacking in opposition. Critics argue they are unconstitutionally broad considering terms like "reasonableness" and "gross negligence" are often used in parental responsibility laws.

Holding someone criminally responsible for the acts of another is very serious when intent is a key component for the conviction of most crimes. And children can often be tried as adults. That potentially means locking up two "adults" for the same crime.

A 2005 study investigated public support for parental punishment legislation. The researchers found that 69% of those polled thought parents of delinquent teens were at least partially responsible. However, the same group was reluctant to agree these same parents should be locked up.