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Parents aren't always to blame

According to the Oregon Legislature, a child's crime always is a parent's failure.

The legislature recently passed a measure that requires parents to keep their kids from breaking the law. If the children do transgress, it is the parents who are punished: They must face a judge who can fine them up to $1,000 or force them to attend classes on parenting or drug and alcohol abuse.

The act is based on an ordinance in Silverton, Ore., a town of 6,200 that passed one of the nation's strongest parental responsibility laws in January. Twelve parents have been cited so far, and eight were required to do penance for their children's lawbreaking. One man was even required to attend parenting classes because his 15-year-old was caught with a cigarette.

Silverton Police Chief Randy Lunsford says the town ordinance gives adults "a tool to become better parents" and calls the measure a way to eradicate parental apathy and neglect.

The idea of holding parents more responsible for the actions of their kids is a good one, but making them serve penance for their children's crimes goes one step too far. Though the legislation makes poor parenting a civil offense, not a crime, it stigmatizes parents by assuming that a child's misbehavior always is the result of a lack of parental supervision.

Parents long have had to pay for their children's civil damages, such as broken windows, but those cases deal only with financial compensation. Making a parent pay a fine or attend a class because his or her child broke the law can place too much blame on the wrong person.

One Silverton woman filed a lawsuit charging that it is unconstitutional to make someone go to court for someone else's offense. She has a point. Parents should be held accountable for their children's actions if prosecutors can prove that they were in some way responsible for the misdeeds. But Oregon's sweeping measure means that some parents will be punished simply for being parents.