A city in New York has a new law that lets authorities send parents of bullies to jail for up to 15 days and fine them up to US$250 ($319).
- North Tonawanda’s law was modelled after one adopted a few years ago by some towns in Wisconsin
- The law has proven to deter bad behaviour, according to Wisconsin police chief
- There are concerns the statute would add to the hardship of already troubled homes
The North Tonawanda City Council voted unanimously on October 3 to amend an existing law to add bullying, harassment and underage drinking to existing curfew violations parents already could be held accountable for.
Politicians also removed a provision that prevented anything more than a warning for a first offence, meaning parents can face a fine or jail right away.
When a 15-year-old boy punched a 13-year-old boy outside a discount shop in May, police told the parents they were all but powerless to punish the attacker.
“We were essentially told that, being a minor, there was nothing that could be done,” said William Crago, whose son was left with a black eye.
“We actually heard that several times: ‘There’s nothing we can do.'”
A community coalition begun by Mr Crago and his wife, Victoria, after the May 8 attack on their son pushed for the change, which was supported by police and schools in the city of 31,000 people.
Even in cases where children are convicted in Family Court, Mr Crago said, there are no real consequences.
He said the boy who punched his son was given probation, and only after the Cragos pushed for an assault conviction.
“It will make a big difference with the hard-core problem groups,” City Attorney Luke Brown said of the law change.
He said police had been frustrated by a group of 10 to 12 teenagers who “know how to walk up to a fine line and not cross it” and parents who had not done enough to change the behaviour.
Typically, police drive misbehaving kids home or have their parents pick them up, sometimes writing the parents violations if the child had violated curfew, detective captain Thomas Krantz said.
The law change, he said, was not aimed at parents who cooperate with the police and schools in trying to fix the problem.
“It’s for the parents … who don’t have the wherewithal to do what they need to do to get their kids in line,” Mr Krantz said.
“The ones who say, ‘It’s not my problem.'”
Law has proven to deter bad behaviour
North Tonawanda’s law was modelled after one adopted a couple of years ago by a handful of towns in Wisconsin.
Dan Ault, the police chief in Plover, Wisconsin, acknowledged his officers have issued just three or four warnings, and no fines, since the law was adopted in 2015 — but the mere threat of punishment has been enough to get parents’ attention.
“We’ve certainly deterred the behaviour,” Mr Ault said.
“They’re being a little bit more aware.
“Why? Because, ‘Holy cow, I’d better pay attention because I don’t want to go to jail for 15 days. I don’t want to pay a $250 fine’.”
Mr Crago and Mr Ault said they had fielded some criticism that the statute amounts to “government intrusion” or would add to the hardship of already troubled homes.
“We are not telling you how to raise your children,” Mr Ault said.
“This is merely asking you to please raise your children. Please be part of your children’s life.”
Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Centre for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, said she would welcome more research into whether parental responsibility laws are actually effective at reducing juvenile crime.
“It’s intuitively appealing to say we take bullying really seriously and parents need to be held accountable,” Ms Nickerson said.
“But if we’re truly looking to have youth behave in more pro-social, positive ways, I have a hard time thinking that the threat of punishing a parent or actually punishing a parent [would help].”
North Tonawanda resident Ashley Miller said she approved of the law “because there’s just so much nonsense and people getting hurt”.
“A lot of people will probably say they can’t control their kids,” said Ms Miller, who is expecting her first child in January, “but that’s part of being a parent”.
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