Thomas L. Williams on the Responsibility of Parents

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Giaus Julius Ceasar Agustus, the second emperor of Rome first recognized the role of a parent in shaping a child’s life in the Dio Cassius: “Is it not a joy to acknowledge a child who possesses the qualities of both parents, to tend and educate a being who is both the physical and spiritual image of yourself, so that, as it grows up, another self is created?”

But what burden must a parent bear when he or she does not tend to a child and the child becomes delinquent? Currently, there is none. Minor adjustments to the Georgia laws concerning juvenile delinquency would allow the courts to help educate both the child AND parent or guardian so the child may have the proper tools to become a healthy and productive adult.

The juvenile justice system is based on the principle that a child has not yet reached legal capacity. Thus, children cannot be considered solely and fully responsible for their actions and are subject to more lenient punishment than an adult for the same conduct. But if the child is not fully responsible for his actions, then who should the courts hold responsible for the vanished portion of responsibility? It is time for the juvenile courts to move away from the traditional position that a single person is solely culpable for her own acts. Rather, in juvenile court, it is time to recognize the fundamental influence parents have over the conduct of their own children.

Some simple and concrete changes can be implemented during the dispositional (sentencing) phase to give the courts the tools to impose sanctions on parents in recognition of their role in shaping a child’s culpability.

First, the law should give juvenile court’s the authority to require a parent to pay child support to the state in all cases where a child is placed in custody (detention center or a group home) due to juvenile delinquency. Juvenile courts already have this authority in cases involving child abuse or neglect. The Georgia Code specifically mandates juvenile courts to order child support payments to be made by those persons “legally obligated to support such child.” Such authority should be extended to delinquency proceedings as well. If the child’s parents had a financial stake in the child’s rehabilitation it would be more likely the parents would be personally invested in the success of the juvenile court’s plan to provide treatment for the child’s delinquent acts.

Second, the law should authorize courts to assess restitution against the parents as part of the delinquency proceedings. Currently, a parent can only be held liable for the restitution of a child if the child is unable to pay the restitution and clear and convincing evidence exists that the parents, “knew or should have known of the child’s propensity to commit such acts and the acts are due to the parents negligence or reckless disregard for the child’s propensity to commit such acts.”

This creates a practically insurmountable burden to meet before a parent can be held responsible for restitution for damages caused by the delinquent acts of the child. In the civil context, however, the Legislature recognized that it is appropriate for a parent to be responsible for the damages caused by a child’s willful conduct. The Legislature has declared “[e]very parent or guardian having the custody and control over a minor child or children under the age of 18 shall be liable in an amount not to exceed $10,000.00 plus court costs for the willful or malicious acts of the minor child.”

Such logic holds greater sway in juvenile court as that court has jurisdiction over the subject matter as well as the child and parent. Yet juvenile courts lack the statutory authority to recognize that parents are partially culpable for the conduct of their child.


James Baldwin writes “children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they never failed to imitate them.”

Sometimes, imitation is not a form of flattery at all and the original actor and the imitator should both be punished. Parents share in the joy of their children’s success. Shouldn’t the juvenile justice system require parents to share the burden when a child’s delinquency is rooted in part the parents’ shirked responsibility for the wellbeing of their children?





5 thoughts on “Thomas L. Williams on the Responsibility of Parents

  1. What then do we do to the parents of the greater number of incarecerated children who happen to have disabilities of one form or another. Did they not pay their fair share to the public purse through taxes, which includes the public education system? The public purse system is required to comply with federal mandates to assist these children have equal access to educational benefits. I simply do not see how the legal argument for civil liability would apply in criminal law. C

  2. E. Shannon:

    Thank you for your feedback. I am glad that the article helped to spur a conversation about the role of parents within the Juvenile Court model.

    I would argue that the above proposals do not seek to assign blame as much as they would help to incentivize parents to take an active role in their child’s lives.

    The underlying principle was to apply a financial incentive for a particular segment of society to exercise due care for the benefit of society generally.

    This is the same concept that is used in civil liability. The local grocery store to keep clean aisles and for your neighbor to fence in the pool.

    Research shows that poor parental bonds tends to lead to a higher incidence of influence by negative peers.

    Thus, isn’t it worthwhile to provide an incentive to parents to create greater bonds? Such incentives would go to your concerns as well as a parent would have a motivation to seek proper mental health treatment for their child. perhaps these incentives would cause parents to become better educated on raising a child with disabilities.

    The law often acts to motivate worthy behavior through the imposition of negative consequences. My proposals seek to improve a child’s relationship with their parent by granting a stake in that child’s interactions with the law.

  3. I strongly disagree that there is a “fundamental influence parents have over the conduct of their own children.” Current research into behavior shows that nature has a far bigger influence on behavior than nurture could ever hope to have. For every sub-optimal parent with a delinquent child, there is also an optimal parent with a delinquent child. Furthermore, to blame even sub-optimal parents for the behavior of their children – which is often due to mental illness, brain injury, genetics – is to in a sense, blame the victim. It fails to recognized the efforts the parents have made to change their child’s behavior. It also fails to recognize how little influence any of us really has over another human being.

  4. Parents have always been responsible for their children. It has just been in the past 2 or so years that they are no longer held to that.
    Parents do not wish to be parents they wish to be friends. They feel it is better to encourage the behavior then to correct it. They will tell you that they courts have created the problem by not allowing parents to use corporal punishment, which is not true.
    Let’s not put the kids in jail any more let’s put the parents. If they are punished for the childs behavior then they will work to correct it.
    Pavlov’s therory works. It has worked for years, until the courts ruled that it was wrong.
    Holding all accountable and punishing equally did not hurt in the past and would not again.
    This is a large society and only a small percentage of it is in jail. Someone was doing right with the majority of them.