If you have kids then you have a lot on your plate - doctor bills, concerns over their school grades, and getting to and from extracurricular activities and sleep-overs. And the older they get, the more dangerous trouble they can get into.

As if more is needed on that list of things your child adds to your life, you may be legally responsible when your child does something illegal or hurts someone.

Crimes

In Des Moines, Iowa, city officials thought they had the solution to the rising juvenile crime rate: Hold the parents liable when their children are arrested or get a ticket for breaking the law. Under a city ordinance parents got a warning letter on the first offense; had to take parenting classes on the second; and faced a $750 fine on the third.

A single mother cited under the law after her son was accused of violating the city's curfew law and for possessing marijuana filed a lawsuit claiming the law was invalid. The state's supreme court agreed - sort of.

She claimed the law interfered with parenting rights. The court disagreed. However, it did rule that the law was invalid because it placed the burden of proof on parents to show they weren't negligent when it came to supervising their children. Rather, the prosecution should have to prove parents were negligent.

So, the law is still on the books - it's just a little harder for the prosecution to win a case.

Not a One-of-a-Kind Law

Laws holding parents liable in some way for the criminal acts of their children aren't new - and they're generally valid. For instance, practically every state has a contributing to the delinquency of a child or child corruption law. If a parent teaches, allows, or participates with his child in something illegal - like shoplifting - the parent usually is held criminally liable.

There are other laws, too:

  • In Maryland, parents may be forced to pay up to $10,000 in restitution if their children are found guilty of a crime
  • Under a California law, parents whose children are convicted of gang-related crimes must go to parenting classes and meet with victims of gang-related crimes
  • In some states, parents have to reimburse the state for the costs of caring for their child while he's in jail or juvenile detention

Civil Liability

Parents often face civil (non-criminal) liability for their child's actions, too. In a novel 2010 case, a driver was convicted of vehicular manslaughter after he struck and killed a 14-year-old boy who was riding his bike. The boys parents later sued the driver for damages.

The driver in turn sued the parents, claiming they were responsible for the boy's death and owed the driver money because they let him ride his bike without wearing a helmet. The case was still pending in early December 2010.

There Are Laws

Parents can be held liable when their children harm someone. Were the parents negligent in supervising their son's use of a helmet, or are they liable because he broke a helmet law? Maybe. However, we do know parents are often liable when their child:

  • Drives the family car and causes an accident. This may lead to criminal liability, too, if someone is seriously injured or killed
  • Defaces or destroys private property. Even if the child is charged with a crime, like vandalism, the parents may be sued in civil court and forced to pay for the damage
  • Use the family or parent-owned computer to illegally download music files

Parents should understand how they may face legal problems because of their child's actions and behavior. Talk to your child about making good decisions and explain how her poor decisions could spell trouble for you and of course, him.

If you suspect your child is involved in something illegal or dangerous, immediately seek professional guidance if necessary. After all, "Keep her healthy and safe" is probably at the top of that never-ending parent list.  

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is a parent liable if her child takes the car without permission and causes an accident?
  • Is a parent liable if his minor child moves out of the family house and later gets arrested for a crime where property was damaged or someone was hurt?
  • Can a parent be liable for her child's crimes committed in a state other than the one where the parent lives?  

Tagged as: Criminal Law, Juvenile Law, parent liability, parent responsibility