DennisBeaverMarch 26, 2007 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Mr. Beaver, I am very concerned about my 17-year-old brother, Daniel. He was recently expelled from school for fighting and possession of marijuana, and his behavior has suddenly changed. He is very unpleasant, shouting at mom and dad, quit his part-time job, comes and goes as he pleases, and is associating with some very tough characters. He takes the car keys, drives all over, and we suspect that he is involved with a group of taggers or possibly a gang, we don’t know for sure.

We are originally from El Salvador, and my parents — who do speak excellent English, by the way — react in a culturally predictable manner. The son is permitted to come and go as he wishes, mom gives him money, and they seem either afraid to act, or do not know how to step in and at least attempt to control his behavior. Daniel and I have not had a real conversation for months, yet we live in the same house.

I have been told that if he gets into real trouble — resulting in harm to someone or property — they could be financially responsible and have attempted to tell this to my parents, but he is a man and I am their daughter. Culturally, they seem unable to listen or hear what I am saying, for as their 21 year old college-student daughter, I do not know much. So, I will ask you: Are parents responsible for the actions of their children, and if so, up to what amounts? What do you recommend we do?
— Thanks, Dolores from Northridge, California.

Parents Can’t Hide

When that e-mail came in from my Southern California reader, I phoned immediately. It was a Sunday, “for so many years, family day,” Dolores related. “But about six months ago, when Daniel began to associate with these kids he met at school, the really heavy and constant marijuana use began. His behavior began to change at that time, and it is not the same home any more. I should have said something to my parents then, but had no idea the extent of his problems,” the California State University at Northridge honor student admitted.

“I have tried to tell my parents they cannot just give him money and that it is serious, but they smile and tell me he is merely growing up. But I know it is serious,” she said, with fear in her voice. “My parents are not people of great financial means, with dad working as a bus driver, and mom takes care of the home. They have worked so hard to get the things they have — our small house and a family car — and I am so worried,” she said, with a voice that could not hide her tears.

She has good reason to worry. This is a family at great risk, for obviously just what the State Legislature and the courts had in mind when California law was changed some years ago to make parents legally responsible for their kid’s actions. An opinion of one of our courts of appeal clearly stated that the law now “permits the imposition of criminal and civil liability on a parent who fails to make reasonable efforts to control a minor.”

This same court opinion put the challenge facing all parents in no-nonsense language, by stating, “In an era of increasing juvenile crime, society is clearly losing its patients with parents who are indifferent to the irresponsible, malicious, or even vicious propensities of their offspring.” (Curry v. Superior Court, 24 Cal.Rptr.2d 495)

Do nothing go to jail

“While rare, parents actually are going to jail when they sit on the fence and permit their kids to run wild,” I was told by a Deputy District Attorney who works in the area of gang and graffiti abatement in Southern California. She added, “You wouldn’t believe the parents who have actual knowledge of what their children are doing — coming home paint soaked, or clearly high on drugs–and who yet do nothing. If we find that a parent has contributed to that child’s delinquency, someone has the chance of going to jail in addition to some heavy fines,” she cautioned.

Both District Attorney and City Attorney Offices throughout the state have formed units that deal with juvenile problems, and I do not just mean truancy. “When an example is made of enough parents — when they are forced to pay for the thousands of dollars of damage their kids cause, or spend time in jail and on probation — the message gradually gets out,” a Deputy City Attorney in a large San Joaquin Valley town pointed out. I must add that I was requested not to use their names or identify the offices in which they work, but all assured me they are in the vanguard of very significant efforts taken by law enforcement all over the state to “hold the feet of these negligent parents to the fire.”

What the law actually states

Every parent should know the provisions of Civil Code Section 1714.1 and Penal Code Section 272. You can find these laws on line, but for now, let me summarize 1714.1.

Any act of willful misconduct of a minor that results in injury or death to another person or in any injury to the property of another can be charged to the parent or guardian having custody and control of that minor. Any act of willful misconduct of a minor which results in the defacement of property of another with paint or similar substances is financially chargeable to the parent or guardian, including all court costs and attorney fees.

I must stress that the law does not require the parent to be at fault. “It is strict liability — if your son or daughter shoplifts, violates curfew, harms someone on school grounds, is truant, fools with tear gas and injures someone, damages property of another, thinks that graffiti is great stuff and defaces a building, or shoots someone with a firearm, that parent or guardian could be liable for up to $60,000, and in some cases, go to jail. And we will send them there,” a Deputy D.A. told me.

And what advice can I give to Dolores and her parents that will have any meaningful impact on his, and their future? If any situation calls for family counseling, this one does, and fortunately Dad’s insurance through work will pay for it, I learned. But it is easy for me–a white guy, part of the establishment — to tell a family with an entirely different cultural background what to do. Will a 17 year old young man, well on his way to becoming a punk himself, listen to what I have to say?

Rather, this is the time, and it is perhaps the only possible time left, for Dolores to take charge, despite all the cultural walls she must scale. “All I want is to go to school and study, what can I do?” she asked me. My answer came from that source common to us all. “You are your brother’s keeper.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.