Families

Parental duties and the law

Patricia Chisholm October 4 1999
Families

Parental duties and the law

Patricia Chisholm October 4 1999

Parental duties and the law

Families

Patricia Chisholm

It was one of those sickening accidents that gives every parent pause: a small boy on a bike is killed in a collision with a reversing van. From the beginning, the death in August of five-year-old Leslie Shaw while the boy played in an alley behind his home in a low-income Edmonton neighbourhood touched a nerve. Local media covered his death and his modest memorial service with its traditional native smudging ceremony. But the local tragedy mushroomed into a national debate last week when police charged Leslie’s parents, Robert Shaw, 42, and Starlene Gibson, 34, with criminal negligence causing death because of their alleged failure to provide adequate supervision. The maximum penalty is life in prison. “These charges are very unusual,” notes Nick Bala, who teaches child and family law at Queens University in

Who is responsible for a fiveyear-old’s death on his bike?

Kingston, Ont. Other parents have faced the same charges, but in circumstances in which they allegedly played a more direct role—for instance, a child who drowns while left unattended in the bath or who develops severe malnutrition. Says Bala: “This case raises the question: can a parent be liable for the acts of third parties because of a lack of supervision?”

Of course, most kids have accidents that, in hindsight, could have been prevented. If the worst happened, any parent may be left wondering if criminal negligence charges could be laid against them. For the vast majority, the answer is clearly “no.” Edmonton police said that in Leslies case, other drivers had reported almost running into the boy as he played unsupervised on his bike in the weeks before his death. Police

warned his parents to be more vigilant, telling them there would be “consequences” if they were not. When officers investigated the fatal accident, they concluded that the parents, not the driver, should be charged. The day they were arrested, social workers took Leslies two younger siblings from the family home.

The case raises difficult legal and moral questions. Are the expectations placed on parents too high? And should an exceedingly blunt instrument like criminal law be used to regulate parenting? “We can’t let parents off the hook,” says Robert Glossop, executive director of programs and research at the Ottawabased Vanier Institute of the Family. “But

to threaten them with criminal sanctions if they fail as custodians strikes me as a very severe response.” The expectations placed on parents are increasing “exponentially” in almost every area, Glossop adds, from instilling social responsibility to ensuring kids can compete in a changing economy. Yet those burdens are seldom matched by additional financial or moral support from the community.

Even when public programs are available to help families, they do not always reach those most in need. Alberta, for exc ample, launched a major ini| tiative in 1996 aimed at reduc| ing one of the highest rates of I road-related injuries in the I country. The education comf ponent includes television and Q print ads as well as information sent to schools to get the message out to parents and their kids. But Kathy Nykolyshyn, a nurse and community co-ordinator familiar with the project, says it is simply not possible to reach 100 per cent of families. “If people with preschool children don’t read the paper or watch TV,” she says, “obviously that creates a barrier.”

When it comes to drawing a line between the private responsibilities of parents and society’s obligation to keep kids safe, there are no ready answers. Solutions are even more difficult when parents are poor: should struggling families be punished while those with help can share the supervisory load? It is up to the courts to decide if Leslie’s parents should be held responsible. But whatever the outcome, the decision to lay criminal charges could open the door to setting a new standard of care for every parent. If a burden that is already onerous for many parents is to increase further, so will the pressures on society to provide more help. EJ