Although parents play a key role in helping prevent youth crime and rehabilitating those convicted of breaking laws, they are virtually invisible in youth justice policies and practices. Civil and criminal laws that attempt to hold parents accountable without ensuring adequate support do not take account of the actual experiences of parents or of the fact that parenting a young offender is difficult in the best of circumstances (Smith and Stern 1997). As a result, parents already struggling with a difficult child are often left feeling blamed and excluded in their encounters with the youth justice system.
The purpose of this article is to explore the place of parents in the youth justice system. The contributions and responsibilities of parents in youth justice policies are introduced conceptually, and parental experiences are examined, based on a study of adults who had a son involved with the Vancouver Island youth justice system in the late 1990s. The article concludes with a discussion of possible ways to support and expand the place of parents in youth justice.
Parents in approaches to youth justice
The place of parents in the justice system varies significantly over time and by place, as youth justice laws, policies, and practices take up different concepts about parental responsibilities and society's response to parents (Hillian 2000). Crime control policies prioritize youth and parental accountability, along with the protection of society and private property (Corrado 1992; Faust and Brantingham 1974). For example, law and order, deterrence, and punishment are emphasized in the presumption, in the new 2002 Youth Criminal Justice Act, of adult sentences for youth 14 and over convicted of serious crimes. Such an approach presupposes the duties of parents, but not their rights, capacities, or needs.
The distress that parents experience when a young person offends is often exacerbated by a common societal belief that the misbehaviour of children is the fault of their parents. Blaming parents is an expression of the faulty parenting paradigm, a set of ideas that children in trouble are the product of poor parenting and that both children and parents should be held accountable (Halpern 1996; Schaffner 1997). This tendency to blame parents is now being manifested in parental responsibility laws, such as those passed in Manitoba and Ontario, allowing victims of property crime to take civil proceedings against the parents of young offenders. Most American states hold parents civilly liable for their children's destructive acts and 17 states impose additional criminal liability, wherein parents judged to be improperly supervising children are fined, even jailed (McNaught 1998). The 2001 Parental Responsibility Act of British Columbia, for instance, states that an individual or an insurance company can use small claims court to commence a civil action against a parent of a child who caused property loss. A parent must pay compensation up to $10,000 unless able to satisfy the court that reasonable supervision was exercised and destructive activity discouraged. The burden of proof is not on the state to prove parental negligence, but on the parent to prove s/he should not be held liable. Parental responsibility is mitigated if there are psychological disturbances in child or parent, if the parent has sought to improve his/her skills by attending parenting courses, or if the youth is in the care of the state (s. 10(d)(h)(j)).
A radically different approach to the place of parents in youth justice shifts the focus to addressing the processes that create social inequality and the root causes of youth crime (Law Reform Commission of Canada 1991; Schissel 2000; Reid and Reitsma-Street 1993; Fisher and Jantti 2000). This community change approach assumes that youth and their parents are primarily neither rational individuals acting in their own best interests nor deviants in need of rehabilitation. …