Editorial: Sins of the child should not fall on the parents

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Rather than punishing fathers and mothers, social programmes and support services are needed to deal with juvenile crime.

Troubled youth are not simply the product of bad parents. The solution to juvenile offending is far more complex. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Troubled youth are not simply the product of bad parents. The solution to juvenile offending is far more complex. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The case of Jahche Broughton, who murdered Scottish tourist Karen Aim in 2008, is a particularly disturbing one. Why, as coroner Wallace Bain, asked this week, had a 14-year-old boy been allowed to roam the streets of Taupo after midnight with a baseball bat? The situation appears all the more reprehensible given that Broughton had liquor and a seeming disposition to violent behaviour.

"It raises," said the coroner, "the standard and question of supervision and whether there should be any criminal or other responsibility for those who were supposed to be supervising him."

Dr Bain's frustration is understandable. He is also not alone in asking whether parents should be made more responsible for the behaviour of their children. Indeed, this has become a staple suggestion as the rate of juvenile crime escalates worldwide, and new solutions are sought.

Some provinces in Canada and states of Australia and the United States have reacted already, passing laws that range from punishing parents, ordering them to exercise better supervision, or ordering them to attend guidance counselling.

California has one of the toughest.

Parents may be fined up to $2500 and imprisoned for up to a year if they are found guilty of contributing to the offending by failing to exercise reasonable care, protection and control over their child.

There is a surface allure to such laws.

Research has shown that inadequate parenting, especially factors associated with child neglect, are among the strongest predictors of juvenile crime. Does it not, therefore, follow that society would benefit from a law that deterred parents who were not properly supervising their children and controlling their behaviour?

They would know that there would be serious consequences if they did not prevent their child's offending.

The thrust of such a law also fits well with the current emphasis on providing greater succour to the victims of crime. Parents, not just their children, would get their just desserts.

Unfortunately, the very limited use and general ineffectiveness of such laws confirms matters are not quite that simple.

Equally, there are questions about the validity of this means of administering justice.

In the vast majority of cases, it is questionable if parents' failure to exercise control is the cause of juvenile crime. It is just one of a number of competing social, cultural, economic and family factors influencing children's behaviour.

And if it cannot be said with certainty that a failure of parental control has caused a juvenile crime, it cannot be concluded that the parents should be punished by society. Or that such a law will deter juvenile delinquency.

There are other detriments to this approach.

One is the intrusion into the privacy of homes, and the implication that parents must raise their children in a certain way. Another is that such a law may cause some parents to impose an unnecessarily strict regime.

That, in turn, may lead some children to become even more difficult to control.

Bad children are not simply the product of bad parents.

The solution to juvenile offending is far more complex.

It involves addressing the root causes through social programmes, as well as providing support services for inadequate and struggling parents.

Child abuse and neglect laws also offer a better option than a law in which the sins of children could fall unfairly on their parents.

- NZ Herald

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