Where are the parents?

Where are the parents?

It’s a popular question that arises whenever violence involving teens erupts. The idea that parents have the primary responsibility for keeping their teenagers and younger children in line is sound, of course. Parents certainly are the front line teachers of right and wrong, and the first defense against their children breaking the law.

But what happens when parents fail, out of ineptitude, dysfunction, or both?

Several states and cities have passed laws that try to hold parents legally responsible if their children are arrested. Many of the laws date to the 1980s and ’90s when a surge in youth violence pushed the issue to the front of the public’s attention. California, for example, adopted the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, in 1988 to hold parents and legal guardians criminally liable if they didn’t exercise "reasonable care, supervision, protection and control over the minor child." Under the statue, parents can be sent to prison for up to a year.

However, in most cases, accountability laws are limited to holding parents financially responsible if a child harms a person or property.

But do such laws work?

Most research on the topic has found problems with the approach. A lack of consistency in enforcement is chief among them. Parents rarely go to jail for their children’s actions. Fines also are infrequent. A 2006 study, for example, by Leslie J. Harris of the University of Oregon School of Law found that Oregon’s much touted parental accountability laws were almost never enforced. Passing accountability laws do send a strong message to parents about their responsibilities. But the lack of enforcement tends to quickly undermine that message.

Beyond laws, what steps can communities take to help parents do a better job of raising and controlling their children? Edie Olson, president of Families First, an Indianapolis-based organization that includes teaching parenting skills among its efforts, says she’s spent considerable time thinking about that question of late.

"The severity and prevalence of violence this summer has been alarming," she said. "The only thing I feel sure of is that there is no single or simple solution. I have wondered what we would learn if each of the kids out after curfew were taken home -- would there be anyone there? Are parents incarcerated, addicted, working, overloaded with younger or too many children, mental or physical health problems, family violence, concerned parents who have lost control of their child?"

Answers to those questions could help determine what if any accountability measures might work.