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?