Editorial: MP's plan for bad parents unrealistic

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Bill's controls don't address all causes of youth crime

Mr Sabin, an ex-policeman, said the bill was triggered by feedback from Youth Court judges and the police. Photo / APN
Mr Sabin, an ex-policeman, said the bill was triggered by feedback from Youth Court judges and the police. Photo / APN

Many family factors can be triggers for youth offending. Chief among these are criminal or anti-social parents. But juvenile delinquency is also associated with large family size, parental conflict, disrupted families and poor parental supervision. Despite this variety of factors, it is the supervision shortcoming that comes in for all the attention in a private member's bill drafted by Northland MP Mike Sabin.

His amendment to the 1989 Children, Young Persons and their Families Act would allow Youth Court judges who believed there had been a lack of suitable oversight to impose bail conditions on parents as well as their children once the offspring have been charged with an offence. Among the conditions could be a ban on the parents consuming alcohol or drugs, and requirements that they reside at a nominated address or observe a curfew. The penalty for failing to comply would be imprisonment for up to 12 months, a fine up to $5000, or both.

Mr Sabin, a former police officer, said the bill was triggered by feedback from Youth Court judges and the police. "One of the challenges that the judges have is that they can put conditions on the children who are in front of the court, but they can't do anything with the parents or guardians who ultimately let them down."

His bill provided the ability to act on the connection between a child's offending and parental behaviour. Somewhat optimistically, a draft of the legislation notes also that parents might come to recognise the consequences of their behaviour to their children.

This greater parental accountability and the highlighting of a lack of adequate supervision is, says the draft's explanatory note, all part of New Zealand better recognising "the holistic drivers of youth crime". Perhaps there is a need for improved identification of these drivers. But Mr Sabin's bill is problematic in terms of the precedent it would set, as well as being a trifle simplistic in its emphasis and in the way it intends to punish parental shortcomings.

Undoubtedly, parents' oversight plays a role in youth offending. Those who see it as pivotal talk of high supervision being linked with low delinquency. Stability, supervision and love and care in the family home mean youngsters are far less likely than poorly-supervised children to be caught up in delinquent behaviour.

But what of other parental shortcomings that can be responsible for offending, such as a failure to teach values? Supervision may not be the main problem in the family background, but parents may, nevertheless, be penalised for it.

In other cases, too great an emphasis may be placed on the role of parents. Other factors in the offending can be equally important. An obvious one is peer pressure. The child may be pushed in that direction by problems at school. In some cases, the offending may even be the outcome of a youthful determination to rebel against parental authority. In such instances, all attempts at supervision or in imposing discipline or control will have proved futile. Parents are clearly important in children's upbringing, but it is very possible to see their influence through rose-tinted glasses.

Nonetheless, Mr Sabin reckons at least half of the responsibility for youth offending is down to adults ensuring their children are properly supervised. That implies many parents will be caught in the legislation's web. A substantial number of adults will find themselves unable to drink and subject to a curfew. How this will be policed has not been explained. It simply falls into the realm of unreality.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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