Bill To Be Tabled: Parental Responsibility

June 16, 2010

Senator Kim Wilson today [June 15] gave a speech on the Parental Responsibility Bill 2010, which she says will be tabled in the House of Assembly this term. Senator Wilson said the Bill is “intended to ensure that parents uphold their responsibilities toward their minor children”, and that we “have to hold parents individually accountable to uphold standards conducive to raising children successfully.”

Part I of the Bill deals with addressing ‘youth crime and disorder’, Part II focuses on ‘civil liability’ designed to provide a remedy to those who suffer loss, damage or destruction of property as a result of youth delinquency.

Senator Wilson, herself a mother of two, said that there is appreciation for the fact that in many ways this is unchartered territory for Bermuda, however, said it is “equally appreciated that there are equally unprecedented occurrences in our society that demands such measures.”

Below follows the full text of the speech by Senator Kim Wilson, Attorney General and Minister of Justice:

Madam President, the face of the accused in many of the recent instances of violent crime has revealed a disturbing trend – the commission of such crime by young people who in some cases are still in their teen years. Furthermore, those who we would no longer classify as ‘young’ more often than not have a track record of dysfunctional behavior going back to their formative years. The challenge therefore confronts us to address the root causes of this appalling trend at a crucial time in Bermuda as relates to the escalation of serious crime.

Madam President, Members of the public have consistently pointed to the abrogation of parental responsibility as one of these root causes. The Government has responded proactively and over the past year has undertaken to research the issue of parental responsibility with a view to ascertaining any link and to identify a solution which will address this increasing trend in a manner which is constructive and aimed at rehabilitating the family unit but is also as punitive as is warranted.

Madam President, the Parental Responsibility Bill 2010, which will be tabled in the House of Assembly this term, is the result of a considered and collaborative approach which is intended to ensure that parents uphold their responsibilities toward their minor children and that minors are equally held to account when they do not adhere to acceptable standards of social conduct. This in turn is anticipated to contribute to a host of other systemic measures to stem the current tide of youth delinquency and anti-social behaviour within Bermuda.

Madam President, I am sure we would all agree that the future of our society depends upon our children as well as our individual and collective success at raising them to be socially functional, law abiding, upstanding citizens. Unfortunately today we are witnessing a trend of social dysfunction and lawlessness that is unprecedented in Bermuda. Whereas the traditional systemic approach has been to let social forces play themselves out until or unless it is necessary for the criminal law to step in; the prevailing trend toward serious criminal conduct tells us that we can no longer afford the luxury of complacency.

Madam President, most of us here are parents and grandparents. Therefore the implications of this Bill touch us all in intimate ways. In this regard, this particular policy initiative was a challenging one to be developed to this stage as aside from my political and professional role, I am also a mother of two young children. And like all of you I share the desire to see strong families, happy children and young people, proud parents and healthy communities in a prosperous Bermuda. That desire is the engine which ultimately drove the initiative to tackle the issue of parental responsibility and youth development in this way.

Madam President, Bermuda is not alone in this regard. Many other jurisdictions are faced with the challenge of formulating policy to guide young people in a positive direction in difficult times. I revert again to my own experiences with the challenge of parenting. I am appreciative of the fact that parenting today is not what it was in the time of our parents. The technological marvels of our age have brought irresistible and sometimes destructive influences to our children. These influences come to our homes through television screens and stereophonic sounds. They are acted out through computer joysticks and digital communication devices. The fact is that our children are able to communicate with the world in ways that children were never able to before. They can access information from infinite sources and of course with the enormous opportunity for good has come the seemingly endless avenue for bad.

Madam President, when we throw into the mix the range of illicit substances in our society and the vulnerability of children to be influenced and pressured by peers and induced by media into making wrong choices, the tasks of both parenting and growing up look increasingly daunting. The data further reinforce the troubling challenges. From 1965 to 2000 between 27 percent and 40 percent of all children born in Bermuda were born to unmarried parents. Probation data reveals a six-fold increase in juvenile probationers between 2005 and 2008. Twenty three percent of the 93 juvenile offenders before Magistrates Court in 2008 were repeat offenders. Between 2005 and 2008 an annual average of 90 young people up to 18 years of age were intake cases of Child and Family Services annually, of which 35 percent of them were classified as ‘out of parental control’.

Madam President, daunting though these challenges may be this is no time for complacent parenting, quite the contrary. The Parental Responsibility Bill 2010 is one of this government’s ways of saying that more than ever before we collectively have to hold parents individually accountable to uphold standards conducive to raising children successfully. We are forced to literally lay down the law to say that at a minimum every parent in Bermuda is mandated to uphold their responsibility to society and their children in a way so as to protect their children from the kinds of behaviours that invariably lead to more serious consequences for not only those children, but also society as a whole.

Madam President, in the process of developing the policy leading to this Bill, the Ministry of Justice embarked on a wide range of consultations. These included governmental as well as non-governmental organizations such as Child and Adolescent Services, Court Services, Child and Family Services, Focus Counselling Services, Turning Point Substance Abuse Program, the Mirrors Program, Co-Ed Correctional Facility, the Department of Public Prosecutions and Magistrates Court. The objective was to consult with as wide a range of these organizations as was necessary and to obtain whatever data and information could be provided to reveal the true nature of youth delinquency as it relates to troubled young people and their parents in Bermuda.

Mr. Speaker, as to be expected there were a host of domestic perspectives on the issues. Whereas there were equally differing views as to what exactly needs to be done, almost everyone conceded the need for measures to address the growing problem of youth delinquency and irresponsible parenting. This was also conceded by the former Bermuda UPB government when it tabled the Parental Responsibility Act 1998. That Bill did not become law due to the change of government. The present Bill shares many of the provisions of the 1998 Bill but differs in important ways. Notably this Bill breaks with the unilateral hard line punitive approach to such matters. Whereas it does concede the need for deterrent penalty, more emphasis is now placed upon the possible option of social rehabilitation. Necessary consultation of the Director of Child and Family Services is mandated before making certain orders. Provisions are also made for counselling and for basing judicial decisions on reports about the social circumstances of the parties involved.

Madam President, when we turn to other societies to draw upon their experiences we find that to one degree or another, similar measures have been evoked from Australia to Canada to the United States and the United Kingdom. In each of these jurisdictions there is an acknowledged need to increasingly hold parents to account to ensure that young people remain within acceptable bounds of conduct. Concurrently it is also being asserted that as parents we are a great asset to any society when we uphold our role as such. When we don’t we are a liability to not only ourselves as parents but to our children and others within our society with detrimental consequences for us all.

Madam President, like these other jurisdictions, by this Bill we here in Bermuda are saying that parents have a duty to exercise care, supervision, protection and control over their children so as to prevent them from dysfunctional behaviour. It is being demanded that a certain level of social conduct should be inculcated within children and should that level be breached, those who breach them as well as those responsible will be held to account. We are saying unequivocally that when you fail to uphold those responsibilities to the detriment of others, something should be done to ensure that you do not continue in this vein. In a very real sense our children need to be protected from their own misconduct as well as from the kind of irresponsible parenting that contributes to such misconduct.

Madam President, we can all appreciate that young people from time to time make mistakes. We further appreciate that youth is a time of coming of age where latitude is permitted for that process to unfold. At the same time we understand that the relatively short period of coming of age (especially between ten to eighteen years of age), is a pivotal time that indicates the trajectory of adult development. It is a time that allows us to gauge the manifestation of great potential or to discern the path of greater troubles to come. This Bill provides us with a much needed tool to enhance the former possibility and avert the latter consequence; hence its provisions for ‘child safety orders’ as well as ‘parenting orders’. No child should be left to his or her own devices to revisit known sites of juvenile mischief without adult supervision until such time as they run afoul of the law. Neither should we have to wait until uncorrected social delinquency develops into criminal juvenile delinquency.

Madam President, other than taking a ‘wait and see approach’ this Bill provides the opportunity to address youth misconduct before it further digresses into serious criminal misconduct. We know that a child who is harassing, alarming or distressing his neighbour today is more likely to be a child who if not reined in from this pattern of misconduct by responsible parenting, is likely to violate the laws in more serious ways tomorrow. Having identified where a parent is in unacceptable breach of responsibility, the Bill empowers the Court to order parents to do what ought to be done to prevent the child from further descent down this slippery slope.

Madam President, it is further acknowledged that it is necessary for the Court to have the benefit of objective evaluation of the social circumstances in any given situation, before ordering young people and their parents to refrain from certain activities or to undertake certain actions. As such it shall be mandated that the necessary information is always obtained from the Director of Child and Family Services before such judicial orders are made.

Madam President, one of the issues that comes up time and again within the jurisdictions we have examined as well as here in Bermuda among those in the social services sector, is the need to provide necessary counselling in circumstances that warrant it and where it promises to be effective. The issue underlies an aforementioned major policy objective of the Bill, to not be confined to punitive measures but to steer the parties onto a path that is socially sustainable.

Madam President, whereas Part I of the Bill deals with addressing ‘youth crime and disorder’, Part II focuses on ‘civil liability’ so as to provide a remedy to those who suffer loss, damage or destruction of property as a result of youth delinquency. It is important to emphasize that we are dealing in this instance with the ‘wilful misconduct’ by a child in circumstances that warrant judicial intervention. What better barometer can we use to spot troublesome youth delinquency and irresponsible parenting than when young people turn to acts of vandalism or other actions of disregard for the property of others?

Furthermore Madam President, the intent here is not to penalize those parents whose children carry out such actions in spite of responsible parenting. Therefore, provisions are made for defences against parental liability such as ‘exercising reasonable supervision’ and ‘making reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage’ the delinquent actions which resulted in the loss.

Madam President, there is full appreciation for the fact that in many ways this is unchartered territory for the people of Bermuda. However, it is equally appreciated that there are equally unprecedented occurrences in our society that demands such measures. Cambridge Institute of Criminology Senior Research Fellow Elizabeth Burney questions whether such measures are indeed effective. She concludes in part that they tend to represent an upholding of values rather than a genuine tool of crime prevention. I am willing to concede the point while I remain cautiously optimistic about Bermuda’s resolve to tackle this problem. At the end of the day it may simply amount to a symbolic stance, but it is one that we are compelled to take in earnest. Ultimately it is not a condemnation of bad parenting which is the impetus here. It is a belief in our ability to do better by our children and a collective demand that as parents we all do what we are capable of doing for the benefit of our society.

Thank you Madam President.

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Comments (2)

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  1. caliban says:

    So true – can’t believe I was ignorant to the question before … the shootings have frequently occurred among groups of younger Bermudians, so of course we should be asking what’s happening in the family lives that might be a factor. One (probably unpopular but legitimate to ask) question that a friend brings up is whether a culture increasingly lacking father figures is giving rise to violence among young men because they are seeking to prove or perhaps over-prove their manhood.

    • RISE UP! says: