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When should we hold parents legally responsible for heinous acts of children?

This undated photo of mass murderer Adam Lanza was circulated by law enforcement officials after the tragic elementary-school slaying in Newtwon, Conn. AP photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A friend and correspondent writes: Surely the legal community that is a major constituency of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle can help us address a seldom-raised issue . How can we -- or should we-- hold parents responsible when a child commits a heinous act of violence that destroys the lives of others? Is it a basic right of human beings to reproduce unmanageable off-spring that wreak havoc on fellow citizens and expect to face no repercussions?

It has long been an assumption in society that parents suffer enough when one of their children is called to justice, whether it can be proven that the parent has have been negligent, ignorant, or both. With populations exploding on this earth we share, and with stimulation of young minds by degrees of media that no person or institution seems to manage, where does the buck stop?

This columnist would like to hear from readers on this matter.

Charisma Miller, Esq., one of the editors of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, begins to shed some light with the commentary below.

* * *

As more and more children and young adults are able to access violent weapons with some degree of ease, the question of parental responsibility re-surfaces.  In 1996, a New York Times/CBS poll asked respondents if parents should be held responsible for the crimes committed by their school age children. 72 percent of the respondents said yes.

Three years later, America was rocked by the Columbine High School shooting that claimed the lives of 12 people — including the shooters Eric Harris (18 years) and Dylan Klebold (17 years).

Last week, America was again shaken to the core:  20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut --  20 of the victims were young children killed in their classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School.   Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was also one of his victims.

As news and information about the Lanza family emerge, the American public tries to understand what would cause someone to commit mass murder on school children. It has been confirmed that the guns that Lanza used in his crimes were registered to his mother and presumably retrieved from his mother’s home.  Given that the guns were owned by Ms. Lanza, does some to the blame for this tragedy rest on her (now deceased) shoulders?

Parents are not automatically liable for the acts of their children. But, parental liability laws do serve as a vehicle through which parents are held accountable for some degree of damage caused by their children. Almost every state has some form of parental responsibility laws that hold parents or legal guardians responsible for the intentional or willful acts of their children. In New York, parental liability statute exists for torts (harm done to another that is not based in criminal or contract law).  

“[New York’s] tort system already makes parents accountable for the actions of their children in some circumstances, Marsha Garrison, the Suzanne J. and Norman Miles Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.  Garrison continued, “If, for example, a parent entrusts a child with a gun knowing that the child does not have the skill or maturity to use it properly and the child uses the gun to injure another person, the parent might be held liable to the victim for his role in the incident.”

But can, or rather should parents be held responsible via the criminal system?  Citing the recent Connecticut shooting, Garrison commented  “Criminal charges might be appropriate in some egregious cases.  But if a parent has no role in facilitating a child’s actions (consider, for example, Adam Lanza’s father, who seems to have had little contact with him), it’s not obvious that making parents liable for the children’s actions would serve any purpose.”

December 17, 2012 - 4:04pm


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