Supporting familial bonds - As I see it

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Morning Zen Guest Blogger - Lisa Lambert recently wrote an article for discussing the agonizing confidentiality dilemma parents of youth with emotional challenges face when their child becomes involved with the juvenile justice system. Read it here or on the website.

When children find themselves in trouble, they should turn first to their parents. This may sound so obvious that it is hardly worth saying. Sadly, though most people recognize the special bond between parent and child, the law does not.

In Massachusetts, parents can be forced to testify against their children. A lawyer or clergyperson cannot be compelled to testify against a child — or an adult, for that matter — in our state. Spouses cannot be forced to give evidence against each other. And, ironically, a child cannot be made to testify against a parent.

Children with behavioral health needs are at increased risk for ending up in juvenile court. They especially need parental protection and usually require parental help connecting to legal or medical services. As one of the parents my organization serves said: “Under the current law, parents must know that they are better off providing a Miranda warning rather than listening and trying to help their children.” That statement came from a survey the Parent/Professional Advocacy League did of our families on the subject of parent-child privilege.

Not surprisingly, 96 percent of the parents we polled said that a parent should not be forced to testify against a child. Many, 42 percent, assumed parent-child privilege was already the law.

Our parents do not differ much from Massachusetts residents in general. Earlier this year, DAPA Research Inc. polled a broad cross-section of voters about juvenile justice issues. An overwhelming proportion of respondents, 90 percent, said that parents should be able to speak with their children confidentially, and 64 percent of voters agreed that parents should not be forced to testify against children. Before taking the survey, only 16 percent even knew about the current law.

Fortunately, it is rare for prosecutors to put parents in the horrible position of testifying against a child. But the law still hurts families. Many parents have spoken with me about their fears that they could be called to testify. How often do these fears cause parents to limit their discussions with their kids? How does the specter of compelled testimony affect plea bargaining?

Privilege acknowledges the special value that our society places on certain relationships. It is also a practical recognition that compelled testimony from a person deeply invested in the accused has little worth.

We asked our families: Let’s say your son or daughter had confided something incriminating to you and while you were trying to get help, he or she was arrested. You are later called on to testify. What would you do?

While 18 percent said they would out and out lie, another 44 percent said they would say they did not remember. So 62 percent said they wouldn’t tell the truth, one way or another. One parent also wrote, “Why should parent-child communications be different from spousal communications? Protecting my child is more important to me that protecting that so-and-so I used to be married to.”

The current law encourages good people to perjure themselves, prevents parents from assisting their children in a time of crisis and weakens families. If our true goal is fighting juvenile crime, our laws should be designed to strengthen families.

The younger we are, the more amenable we are to change. The emphasis in juvenile court is on rehabilitation because we know children are still works in progress. The court mandates that parents participate in proceedings and decision making. After all, kids are far more successful when parents guide and support them. Yet without parent-child privilege, we risk driving a wedge between parents and kids — at a time when a close, trusting relationship is so critical.

It is just a few weeks since we moms were treated to breakfasts in bed, potted plants and so on. Many of us received cards praising our irreplaceable role in our children’s lives. Then it was Dad’s turn, and the sentiments in those cards read much the same. I don’t doubt that we as a society respect and cherish the bond between parent and child. The question is: When will we insist that our laws do the same?

Lisa Lambert is a member of the Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council and the executive director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League.


  1. JRP's avatar
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    I just got summoned by the DA to testify against my son. The whole incident happened inside of my apartment, and the "victims" beat and punched him inside of our apartment. The victims are my tenants, who have not paid the rent for the past 3 months. Their excuse is that they don't feel safe here, that is why they don't need to pay the rent. Of course we are evicting them, but today I was summoned by the Northwestern District DA to testify. His lawyer is unresponsive, and the only thing I can do is to tell the truth about the attack my son was victim. The charges are Larceny: he took the cell phone from one of the tenants daughters, who took pictures of him without his knowledge, and came to show me those photos. The phone was returned right then. Another charge is Threat to commit a crime: he took a sword that was on our stairs for months, trying to stop the perpetrators to follow him to his bedroom and punch him more, and waived the sword above his own head, telling them to get out or he would kill them. He really resisted arrest, because he didn't feel he did anything wrong. He was only defending himself and his home.
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