Parental Responsibility For Children’s Actions

Laws hold parents responsible for the behavior of their children and liable for their misdeeds based on the theory that parents have a duty to control the child. Under the law, if the child is not controlled or reasonably disciplined, property damage caused by his behavior is the parent’s fault.

Liability

Laws automatically impose liability on parents of children who have maliciously caused property damage. These laws protect victims of property damage by requiring parents to pay some compensation, even if they were not negligent.

Parental liability laws typically make exceptions (and do not require compensation) for very young children under the theory that a very young child could not have formed the intent to behave maliciously.

Negligence

When parents fail to supervise children in situations requiring it, the parents may be negligent. A negligent parent is responsible for any damage or injuries caused by the child’s behavior in the unsupervised situation. The child’s age and presence or absence of intent to do damage is not relevant. A parent who is not liable under parental liability laws because her child is very young (and incapable of malicious intent), could still be found negligent because she failed to properly supervise the child.

Am I always liable for injuries my child causes simply because I am the parent?

No. Liability for your child’s behavior is not based solely on the fact that a parent-child relationship exists – at a minimum, you must be negligent. In other words, you, as the parent, must have failed to do something you had a duty to do.

I told my 16-year-old son he had to mow the lawn with our riding lawn mower, as he does every Saturday, and he ran into the neighbor’s car. Do I have to pay for the damage?

Yes. Although you were not negligent, since your son knew how to operate the lawn mower and had used it many times before, in this instance he was mowing the lawn because you expressly directed him to. When a child is acting under your specific instructions and direction, you are liable for injuries and damage that occurs while he is performing the task.

My son and his friends were riding four-wheelers on our property when one of the children was injured while driving. Am I liable?

Yes. Anytime you allow your child or any other minor to use a dangerous instrument, you may be liable. Four-wheelers and ATV’s are generally considered to be dangerous instruments.

SIDEBAR: Under some circumstances, liability may not be imposed when a child is allowed to use a dangerous instrument. For instance, you might not be negligent if your son’s friend had ridden four-wheelers on your property before, you were supervising the activity, the children had to ride on a specified track, were given certain rules to follow, and had been trained in driving.

TIP: A dangerous instrument can be anything not commonly used by a child of a certain age, not suitable for that child’s age or consistently used in a manner not suitable for the child’s age.

Criminal acts

Parents may be liable for their children’s criminal acts to the extent they must compensate the victim for damages and injuries. For example, although the parents themselves cannot be convicted of arson where their child burns down a barn, the parents will be financially liable for the damage caused.

When am I liable for my child’s criminal acts?

In order to be liable, you must have some sort of control over your child. If your 17-year-old son that takes your car, drives drunk and fatally injures someone, he is not in your control. However, in that same situation, if you knew he was drunk and still gave him the car keys, you would be liable for his crime because you negligently entrusted him with driving your vehicle.

TIP: Before a parent can be liable for a child’s criminal acts, the parent:

  1. must have known or should have known that the child needed to be controlled because of previous similar bad behavior;
  2. had the ability to control the behavior; and
  3. had the opportunity to control the child.

Are the parents of children who take guns to school and shoot other students liable for their child’s crime?

The parents are liable only if the child had behaved in a similar way in the past. The parents must have been on notice that the child had a propensity for or likelihood of taking a gun to school and shooting other students.

Do parents who are liable for their child’s crime go to jail for them?

No. A parent is not convicted of the crime in place of the child nor is a parent required or permitted to serve time on behalf of the child.

SIDEBAR: Parents may be separately charged and convicted with a crime they committed, such as buying an illegal firearm that the child then used in a separate crime.

SIDEBAR: Parents of children who have committed crimes are typically sued in civil court. A jury decides if they are liable or responsible for the injuries to the victims because of their failure to control or supervise their child. If parents are found liable, they must financially compensate the victims for their injuries and other damages.

We know our son has a propensity for violence. What steps can we take to minimize our liability for his actions?

You should remove guns and other weapons from the house. Additionally, you might:

  • apprise school personnel of his behavior (and any changes);
  • monitor his comings and goings;
  • set curfews; and
  • provide professional counseling.

TIP: Courts recognize that a parent’s ability to control the child’s behavior diminishes as the child matures and grows older.

If I take my son off his medication for ADD, will I be liable if he hurts someone at school?

Yes. If the injury happened because he was taken off the medication and you failed to inform school authorities, you will be liable. However, if you inform the school authorities that he was taken off his medication, you cannot be accused of negligence and you will not be liable for the injuries.

TIP: You do not have a duty to medicate your child in order to protect others from possible injuries that are caused by the disease, syndrome or disability for which he is being medicated.

My son, who has been in fights at school in the past, assaulted another student during the senior class trip. Am I liable for his actions?

No. Although you knew your son was prone to get into fights, his age and the fact that he was miles from home means that you did not have the ability or opportunity to control his behavior.

Juvenile laws and procedures

Special laws have been enacted to address crimes committed by children. The disposition and sentencing of the crime is handled differently from an adult case since the minor’s privacy must be protected. Any criminal issues concerning minors are addressed in juvenile courts. Minors do not appear in state courts to be punished for their crimes unless they are being tried as adults. Additionally, the minor starts with a “clean” record when he turns 18 years old. Juvenile crimes do not follow the child into adulthood – at least in public records.

Detention hearings

Typically, minors are not sentenced if they commit a crime. Rather, they are detained and sent for rehabilitation in a juvenile facility for a period of time. Decisions concerning the minor’s need to remain in the custody of the court and sent to a facility are determined during a detention hearing.

The hearing must be held within a very short period of time after law enforcement takes the minor into custody – usually no more than 24 hours. At the hearing, the juvenile court judge determines whether or not the minor engaged in the criminal conduct. If the child is not a repeat offender, he will be released; repeat offenders will be detained. Additionally, a child will be detained if the court determines he is a danger to himself or to the public.

SIDEBAR: The commission of certain serious offenses converts the minor into an adult for the purposes of prosecution.

TIP: First offenders are not detained; they are usually released to the custody of a parent.

The child is detained in a special facility for several days. The facility can be a juvenile shelter, children’s home or other authorized detention facility.

If my child is arrested, can he be held in jail?

Yes. Minors can be taken into custody after an arrest just like an adult. However, children are held in a juvenile detention area rather than with the general jail population. Typically, your child must be allowed to make a phone call within an hour or 2 after his arrest and be released into your custody.

TIP: Children in custody must be informed of their Miranda rights before they are questioned.

SIDEBAR: Federal laws prohibit detaining a child for longer than six hours in an adult jail setting. Additionally, during that time the child must be kept in an area that is out of sight and sound of adult inmates.

If my child is charged with a crime, will she remain in custody until sentencing?

Yes. At the detention hearing, the judge can decide that your child must remain in custody until sentencing. Juveniles are held in juvenile hall during this period of time.

TIP: Juveniles are generally released into their parents’ custody. However, a juvenile who is charged with a felony, is a fugitive from another jurisdiction, or is a physical threat to himself or others usually remains in juvenile hall.

My child is still in custody and waiting for a detention hearing. What do I do to get her released?

You should file an application for a writ of habeas corpus requiring law enforcement officials to show why she is being detained without a hearing. Although laws require detention hearings to be held within 48 to 72 hours, sometimes officials do not follow the law and it is necessary to seek intervention from the court.

My child was arrested and a probation officer contacted me. Why is a probation officer involved?

In the juvenile system, probation officers are used prior to, rather than after a conviction. When a minor is arrested, the juvenile probation department initially handles the case. In most situations, the probation officers assigned to your child’s case will either reprimand the child or direct him into a community service program.

My child is going into a detention hearing. Do I have a right to speak at the hearing?

No. Unless the court permits you to speak, the judge generally hears from the arresting officer or probation officer only. Typically, you and the probation officer will have come to an agreement prior to the hearing. For example, you may decide that your child’s crime is so serious he needs to be sent to a facility and the officer will relay your wishes to the court.

What is a fitness hearing?

In a fitness hearing, the juvenile judge determines if the child is “fit” for prosecution in a juvenile court or should be tried as an adult. Laws generally require children to be at least 14 years old before they can be tried as an adult.

TIP: A child is unfit for juvenile court if she is a repeat offender, shows criminal sophistication, demonstrates an inability to be rehabilitated before reaching adulthood, and has previously been unsuccessful in the juvenile system.

What is a dispositional hearing?

The dispositional hearing is the “sentencing” phase of the process. At the hearing, the judge decides where to send a child for detention and the length of the stay.

My child’s probation officer has recommended “diversion” rather than sending the case to the court. What is diversion?

“Diversion” means your child is diverted into a community service or rehabilitation program rather than sent to a detention facility.

SIDEBAR: When a juvenile is arrested, the juvenile probation or prosecutor’s department makes a decision to dismiss the case, divert the child into a community program, or request the judge to intervene by holding a disposition hearing.

What is a consent decree?

A consent decree is the court document outlining the conditions of dismissing or diverting the case against your child. Typically, the decree sets out curfews, requires regular attendance at counseling sessions and school and directs the child to make financial restitution to victims.

My son was sent to detention. Am I required to pay the costs of his stay in the detention facility?

Yes. Typically, there is a daily charge for stays in a detention facility. The parent has the legal responsibility to pay the charges, plus any fines that might have been assessed.

Can I have my child admitted to a juvenile detention center?

No. Only a juvenile judge determines if a child will be sent to a detention facility. You cannot “commit” your child to a facility.

How do I get my child’s juvenile records erased or expunged?

You must file a petition with the court. It is recommended that you hire an attorney to handle this matter.

Will my child attend school while she is in a detention facility?

Yes. The law requires that children receive an education during their detention. However, the school is on the premises of the center and your child will attend classes there rather than at her regular school.

My son is being tried in juvenile court. Does he have the right to an attorney?

Yes. Your son has the right to consult with an attorney during the proceedings.

My daughter was expelled from school. Why is she being referred to juvenile court?

Laws may require schools refer children that have been expelled to juvenile court. The expulsion creates a situation where the child becomes a delinquent in need of supervision.

Who has access to juvenile records?

Access is limited to the child’s attorney, court personnel, law enforcement, and persons to whom the child has been referred for treatment.

TIP: A child whom the court determines did not commit a crime has the right to have any juvenile court records destroyed.

TIP: Children who do not have a parent willing to act in their best interests during juvenile court proceedings have the right to have a guardian ad litem appointed by the court.