Out of court

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Can Parents Do With a Wild Teenager?

Recently a former client called and asked my advice about what his rights were with respect to his out-of-control 16 year-old. The boy is skipping school, smoking marijuana, staying out all night and generally disregarding his parents. Legally, parents have very limited options for in-home discipline: withdrawal of privileges, strict house rules, counselling, and calling the police. They can't throw a minor (under 18) out into the streets.

In serious cases, parents can petition the juvenile court when a child (under 18) is in need or at risk. If the child is "beyond the control of the parent" and is endangering the health, safety or welfare of the child or another person, the parent can ask for juvenile court intervention for this "child in need of services." Likewise, if a child has been absent from home for more than 72 hours or has a substance abuse problem which is not subject to a criminal case, a petition for an at-risk child may be made. These petitions are under the Family Reconciliation Act, found at chapter 13.32A. of the Revised Code of Washington. Juvenile Court in King County and the other counties will have more information. For children who do not attend school, the school district can file a truancy petition under RCW chapter 28A.225.

In days gone by, our parents or grandparents might suggest taking the 16 year-old 'behind the woodshed' for a whipping. Many people believe that's what we need more of. However, the use of physical force against a child is limited.

Under state law, "the physical discipline of a child is not unlawful when it is reasonable and moderate when it is inflicted by . . . a parent . . . for purposes of restraining or correcting a child." (RCW 9A.16.100) That statute bans certain punishments such as "throwing, kicking, burning, cutting, and striking with a closed fist." The Legislature also has banned "interfering with the child's breathing" and "threatening with a deadly weapon." And of course, it prohibits the "shaking of a child under three." The law further warns that these prohibitions are "illustrative of unreasonable actions" and they are not "exclusive." What is more, the catchall provision bans: "doing any other act which is likely to cause and does cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks." The "age, size and condition of the child and location of the injury" are used to determine whether the bodily harm is reasonable and moderate.

I had a case a few years ago of a well respected father who was an engineer and born in another country. He had a disrespectful 17 year-old son. To teach the impertinent son a lesson, he decided to cane him. Caning is a time honored form of discipline in many cultures. The offender (almost always male) would drop his pants and be hit with a cane, switch, paddle or other implement on his behind or on back of the thighs. In my case, the father used the flat side of a wooden ceremonial sword and hit the back of his son's thighs 5 times or so. Later, at school he complained of pain. He was sent to the school nurse's office, where long, red welts were observed on his legs. The school contacted the police who later arrested and booked my client for a felony assault with a deadly weapon.

The 17 year-old was bigger than his father and after a week, the welts were gone. He did not want to prosecute his father, because he loved him and felt he deserved it. Nonetheless, the prosecutor's office would not dismiss the case despite my argument that this was "reasonable parental discipline" given the age, size and transient nature of the injury. I thought a jury would acquit him. However, I could not promise that and if we lost, he was looking at a minimum sentence of 15 months due to the 'deadly weapon.' His family did not want a trial. So we ended up pleading to a misdemeanor assault and he was sentenced to do some community service work.

As for the client who called I advised that physical discipline is a risky option. Instead, I told him to set very clear rules and expectations in writing. For example, for every cut class, his son would lose a week of allowance. His bedroom could be subject to random, parental searches with confiscation of contraband and with the possibility of calling the police as well. In serious drug cases, the petitions to juvenile court or commitment to a locked treatment facility are also possibilities.

These 'tough love' measures may or may not be effective. I know that well. . . Time and maturity are often the only cure.

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