- Published: October 31, 2012
- Written by Angela Lin
Last May, a ten-year old boy shot his father dead.1 His attorney argues that in addition to neurological and psychological problems, the boy was conditioned to violence by his neo-Nazi father. Well, the father is dead - but was he liable?
If a two-year old breaks a vase in the store, the child's parent would be expected to pay for the cost of the vase. If a seventeen-year-old breaks a vase in the store, the child is held responsible. When do the actions of a child stop being the responsibility of the parent? As many as 70% of the youth in the United States juvenile justice system are affected by a mental disorder.2 A child's mental health is influenced heavily by his or her parents, and even in cases where the insanity defense is not applicable (e.g. for the case of personality disorders), should parents be held to some standard of liability?
At this point, we cannot say with any degree of certitude that specific parental actions or inactions contribute, for example, to a intensification of a child's psychoses or the exacerbation of some mental condition that could be used as part of an insanity defense. But should parental treatment be considered as mitigating factors in the sentencing of the child offender? The sociopathic nature of the notorious child killer Mary Bell may have resulted at least in part from her her mother's abusive, manipulative treatment.3 Should her mother have been held accountable in part for Mary's actions? Mary's mother herself may have suffered from Munchausen by proxy, harming her daughter's mental health as a symptom of her own mental illness.4
Parental responsibility laws in the United States differ from state to state, ranging from parental fines or imprisonment to requiring parents to take parental responsibility training courses, or to attend treatment, counseling, or rehabilitation as necessary.5 At a minimum, the mental health of the parents should be evaluated and treated as necessary as part of the sentencing and treatment of the juvenile offender.