Violent acts by minors: Who should take the blame?

By Bethel Habte / Columnist

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Every time someone commits a heinous crime, we as a society search for answers. Is it simply a matter of mental health or upbringing, or is the root cause something deeper than that?

It has long been determined that the individual who committed the violent act bears the consequences of said act. But, according to some, if that individual should happen to be a minor, the blame rests with his or her parents, as has been proposed in the case surrounding the murder of Autumn Pasquale. 

On Oct. 20, 2012, in Clayton, N.J., 12-year-old Autumn Pasquale was murdered by 15-year-old Justin Robinson. In response to the tragedy, Autumn’s father, Anthony Pasquale, petitioned to propose his “Autumn’s Law” to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

With Autumn’s Law, Pasquale hopes to hold Robinson’s parents criminally accountable for the 15-year-old’s violent act against his daughter. The premise of Pasquale’s petition is that “minor children are rarely, if ever, born murderers” and that they, therefore, must be “cultivated” to become so. Thus, he said parents who handle their children’s violent behavior in a neglectful or abusive manner should be held criminally responsible for their resulting actions. 

While the premise behind Autumn’s Law may make considerable sense, holding parents criminally accountable for their children’s violent acts defies the very nature of violent acts. 

Autumn’s Law takes several variable factors for granted. 

For instance, the proposed legislation deems that a child’s mental health is “the primary responsibility of a child’s parents/guardians” and not that of “his/her school, state, teacher, counselor, law enforcement, community, neighbors or church.” This undermines the effect that these external social forces also play in a child’s social development. For example, studies from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services have found that poor emotional support in school is linked to an inclination for violent behavior, with strong support associated with a decreased likelihood to commit violent acts.

Pasquale said that when parents or guardians “know or should have known” that their child posed a threat to third parties, it is their responsibility to minimize the risk. But to be aware of the extent of a child’s violent tendencies and to determine a child’s likelihood to harm third parties is a difficult task, even for trained mental health professionals.

A 2009 study by Eric Elbogen and Sally Johnson for the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill found that violent behavior cannot be linked solely to mental health. Any tendency of those with a mental illness to commit violent acts are also the result of a variety of other factors, such as substance abuse, environment and violent history. In fact, an individual who has never exhibited violent tendencies is just as likely to commit a violent act as an individual who ha so, according to the study. 

A large aspect of Pasquale’s case results from his evaluation of the supposedly inferior home care provided to Robinson. He said Robinson was repeatedly victim to a tumultuous home-life  — his father abandoned him, his mother neglected him and he received care that did not appropriately take into account his neurodevelopmental disorder. Negligence, Pasquale ascertained, was his daughter’s ultimate murderer. 

Where do we place the line between a parent’s negligence and their lack of ability to completely control their children’s behavior?

According to the trends, it’s impossible to accurately assess.

This situation illustrates the ironic paradigm behind the assertion that parents be held criminally responsible for their children’s behavior because it is often not within their means to control. 

Of course, parental intervention has been proven to be an important factor in preventing a child from becoming criminally involved, and it should remain emphasized. It cannot, however, be assumed to be the sole driving force behind a child’s criminal involvement. 

To assume so would simply be negligent. 

Write Bethel at beh56@pitt.edu

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