Parental Responsibility Laws in States

Not everyone thinks that the new parental responsibility laws are meant for the noble purpose of greater parent-child cohesiveness. Harding suggests that the true intent was as a mechanism to legislate the withdrawal of the state from financial responsibility to families and as an ideological mechanism to restructure thinking on family stability and juvenile delinquency. It was a movement from parental rights to parental responsibility, but for some, this was acceptable. After all, parental rights were legitimately set aside under the parens patriae model in order to care for the well-being of children.

This justifies issuing orders and demanding greater responsibility of parents (Vincent, p. 52). Two questions raised from this debate, and to be addressed shortly, is whether it is fair to place all responsibility on parents for the failure of their children, and what the benefits and limitations of parental responsibility laws are. Before exploring the benefits and limitations of the laws, it is important to review at least a few states that have parental responsibility laws and the sanctions imposed by each. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, some states passed parental responsibility laws.

The types of parental responsibility laws passed, however, changed between the two decades. The laws of the 1980’s saw the imposition of sanctions on parents for their child’s behavior. Sanctions including $1,000 fines and/or time in jail were permitted in earlier responsibility laws. During the 1990’s, the laws were relaxed somewhat and the focus became primarily parental rehabilitation. Parents could free themselves from the sanctions of fines or jail time by agreeing to participate in some parenting program or family counseling (Lansing, p. 121).

For example, Silverton, Oregon passed an ordinance making failure to supervise a minor a civil offense, and gave parents the option of paying a $150. 00 fine or taking a once a week parenting class. Of course, the “either/or” approach to the law makes it easier for those of a higher social class to simply pay a fine and free themselves from what could be seen as public humiliation of having to sit through a parenting class. The state of California likewise passed a law in 1993 that allows for probation departments to divert parents into an education, treatment or rehabilitation program (Harris and Teitelbaum, pp.2-8).

There are two key points that instructors of these parenting classes attempt to direct toward parents: Get control of your child and don’t be conned by their manipulation, and testify in court against your child if you know they are breaking the law (Schaffner, p. 34). According to Vincent,  this approach changes parents “from passive observers to one where the parent becomes an active agent of the court in implementing a program to remedy the child’s behavior problems” (Vincent, 1977, p. 524). This is done through the threat of taking away their custodial rights to the child (Vincent, p. 325).

What we have here are two options, one seen as a proactive attempt to help parents develop their parenting skills. The other option is sanctions to punish parents for a lack of participation or adequate responsibility. There are other ways that the state may force greater parental involvement. I will present some of these approaches next. Some states have used public housing rights as a way to manage parents, threatening to take away this privilege if they fail to control their child. Others have moved from a Person in Need of Supervision law to a Family in Need of Supervision law (Davidson, p.141).

In New York State, laws that blame parents for lack of responsibility are generally concerned with behavior that precedes a child’s delinquency. Criminal sanctions or a civil remedy might be imposed on parents if the court determines that inadequate parental supervision or control was a factor in contributing to a child’s delinquency. One difficulty with the laws of New York, according to Lansing, is that they do not address the role that parents might play in a delinquent’s program of rehabilitation.

Parents might be charged with failure to supervise their child, and then have no role required of them after a delinquency finding to supervise their child. The courts, according to Matza, seek to get parents to sponsor their children, but most courts do not lay out any expectations of how this might be undertaken. Parents are often confused by what is their role and what is the role of the court in the dispositional stage. Many misperceptions exist for both parents and the court.