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Parental Responsibility Laws

Parental Responsibility Laws

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 07/2006 by Lenny Roth
New parental responsibility laws - On 5 February 2006, NSW Premier, Hon Morris Iemma MP, announced that the Government will amend the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 to enable the Department of Community Services to apply to the Children’s Court to enter into parental responsibility contracts with parents of children who are at risk of neglect. The contracts could require parents to undertake a course of action such as attending a parenting program, attending counselling, or refraining from abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Parents who refuse to enter into a contract or breach a contract would risk having their children removed on protection grounds. These laws are part of the Government’s Respect and Responsibility plan and they aim to prevent juvenile crime. In August 2005, the Opposition also announced that it would introduce new parental responsibility laws if elected.

Parenting and juvenile crime - According to Dr Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), research shows that factors associated with inadequate parenting, particularly factors associated with child neglect, are among the strongest predictors of juvenile involvement in crime. However, according to Australian academics, Richard Hil and Anthony McMahon, research studies examining the link between parenting and juvenile crime are analytically and conceptually flawed. Pia Salmelainen, also from BOCSAR, has identified three categories of risk factors associated with parental neglect of children, including: (1) Social and economic conditions in the community; (2) Family factors; and (3) Personal characteristics of the parents and of the children.

NSW care and protection laws - The Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 allows the Department of Community Services to intervene in families if the Department has received a report that a child is at risk of harm and the Department considers that the child is in need of care and protection. Interventions can range from providing support services to the family, to entering into agreements with the parents about how a child’s need for care and protection will be met in the future, to - in serious cases – seeking an order from the Children’s Court to remove the child from the family home and place the child under the parental responsibility of another suitable person or of the Minister for Community Services.

NSW laws concerning parents of juvenile offenders - In 1994, the Fahey Government introduced the Children (Parental Responsibility) Act, which allows a court to make various orders in relation to the parents of a child who has committed an offence. These orders include requiring the parents to attend the court proceedings, requiring them to give an undertaking to do certain things, or to give security for the good behaviour of the child. The Act also created an offence if a parent had, by wilful default or neglect, contributed to the child’s commission of an offence. In 1997, a Committee that evaluated the Act recommended that it be repealed. However, in 1997, the Carr Government replaced the Act with the Children (Protection and Parental Responsibility) Act 1997, which contained the same provisions as well as some other provisions. In 2001, an Evaluation Committee recommended that the relevant provisions, except for the neglect offence, should be retained. That offence has not been repealed.

Parental responsibility laws in United Kingdom - Laws introduced in the UK in 1998 and 2003 provide for parenting contracts and parenting orders. Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) can enter into parenting contracts with parents in order to prevent a child from engaging in criminal conduct or anti-social behaviour or to ensure that the child attends regularly at school. Contracts may require the parents to attend a counselling or guidance program and to ensure that the child is supervised and that the child stays away from certain places and people. If a parent refuses to enter into, or breaches, a parenting contract, YOTs and LEAs can apply to the court for a parenting order. A court may also make a parenting order if a child is convicted of an offence or if a child receives an anti-social behaviour order. Failure to comply with a parenting order can result in a fine of up to 1,000 pounds.

Parental responsibility laws in Western Australia - In June 2005, the West Australian Government introduced the Parental Support and Responsibility Bill 2005. The bill is similar to the UK laws and it would allow authorised officers from Departments for Community Development, Education and Training and Justice to enter into responsible parenting agreements with parents; and for the CEO of those Departments to apply to the court for responsible parenting orders if parents refused to enter into an agreement or if they breached an agreement. The requirements for parents to comply with in a contract or order are similar to those mentioned above in relation to the UK laws. Failure to comply with an order could result in a fine of up to $2,000. The bill has passed the Legislative Assembly but not the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council Standing Committee on Legislation is currently inquiring into the bill.

Parental responsibility laws in other jurisdictions - A number of different parental responsibility laws exist in other jurisdictions within Australia and, in South Australia, a Parliamentary Committee report on the state’s youth justice system recommended introducing parental responsibility orders but the Government has not implemented this recommendation. Ireland introduced new laws in 2001 that allow courts to order the parents of juvenile offenders to participate in a course to improve their parenting skills and to undergo treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. Many States in the United States have responsibility laws and in the 1990s a number of States introduced laws to allow courts to require parents of juvenile offenders to attend parent training courses.

The debate about parental responsibility laws - Parental responsibility laws aim to reduce juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour by getting parents to take proper responsibility for their children. Some laws attempt to do this by punishing parents, others by ordering parents to exercise better supervision, and others by encouraging or ordering parents to attend guidance counselling. Critics argue that the laws will not be effective for various reasons including because the laws do not address the underlying causes of inadequate parenting. Critics also contend that the laws will actually be counterproductive because they will increase tensions within families. Opponents also maintain that a better response would be to provide more support services for parents.

Parental education and support services in NSW - Aside from legislative measures, the State and Federal Governments are increasingly recognising the importance of developing early intervention and parental support services, and they have introduced a number of policies in this area in recent years.