Most supporters of parental responsibility laws argue that the primary benefit of such laws is to strengthen the family and thereby reduce the likelihood of delinquency (McMullen, 2004; Lansing, 1999; and Laskin, 2000). Parental responsibility laws, according to some, are not meant to be punitive (Laskin, p. 226): However, others suggest that the punitive role of parental responsibility laws can be beneficial to their success (McMullen, p. 181). Besides getting parents involved more with their kids, it is argued that parental responsibility laws provide other benefits to society.
By threatening to punish parents for failure to be accountable for their child’s actions the laws serve as a deterrent, not only for the parents to parent better, but also as a deterrent on the child not to engage in the behavior. Other parents may witness the impact of the law on someone and think about their own parenting behavior. McMullen argues that such accountability motivates parents to act quickly and cost-effectively. Citing a suburban police chief, she notes his statement on punitive measures against parents: “It’s effective as a threat.
When they receive a notice, parents get angry. They tell their kids: ‘You’re going to get us in trouble. Straighten up your act’” (McMullen, 2004, p. 625). But how much of the responsibility for failure falls to the parents and how much falls to the state when it comes to an adolescent’s delinquent behavior? Supporters of responsibility laws turn to sociologists who argue that delinquency is due to family chaos, poor supervision, family conflict, and poor discipline skills (Schaffner, 1997; Laskin, 2000). But opponents of the law also turn to sociologists.
They point to poverty, racism, and the failure of schools and neighborhoods as causes of juvenile delinquency (Laskin, pp. 344-345). If there are other sources influencing delinquent behavior, are there reasons to question the reasonableness of parental responsibility laws? Opponents argue that parental responsibility laws unfairly penalize the poor. The poor are more likely to be working irregular hours, limiting their ability to supervise their children, and would be less able to assume the financial burden of any fines associated with violating parental responsibility laws (Tyler and Seagady, 2000).
Responsibility laws would especially impact minority mothers as they are already stigmatized and blamed as inadequate mothers (Laskin, 2000). Laskin suggests that this is often due to cultural reasons where some parents, notably African-American mothers, may not fulfill the ideal motherhood standards of middle class America. She questions whether parental responsibility laws are meant to force parents to adopt certain parenting approaches or simply require the basics like supervisory control (Lansing, p.
521). This question has been addressed already when speaking of race and the parenting styles of Diana Baumrind and cannot be ignored in the debate over parenting and the expectations of the juvenile court. A key argument in the debate over parental responsibility laws is the point that there is no unified agreement as to whether parents are actually able to control the behavior of their adolescents, even under ideal parenting conditions.
As one judge noted when dealing with the excessive truancy of a juvenile and questions about his mother’s attempts to get him to school, “I don’t expect a 120-pound woman to be able to get her 6-foot-2 son off to school if her son doesn’t want to go” (McMullen, 2004, p. 624). Many parents find that even if they have done everything possible, they are often still liable under the law (Speck, 1968). This can influence their participation in the court process: How much cooperation are you going to get from parents when the proceedings include the possibility of personal judgment against them (Speck, 1968)?
Parents have often felt like victims and therefore resist advice (Schaffner, 1997). Suddenly the court staff is perceived as the enemy. Those that do submit to the court often do so with a subservient attitude (Dobson, 1970). Reasons for this subservience include how it might influence the probation officer’s final report and how it might result, at worst, in only the child being sanctioned for its behavior (Dobson, 1970). This relationship between parents and the court system needs to be explored in greater depth and is the final piece of this review of parental responsibility laws.