09/18/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Is Being a Bad Parent a Crime?


There is something almost comical about the idea of suing parents for raising their children wrong, like a cross between Nick at Nite and Kafka.

As with so many potentially absurd American arguments, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. got there first, this time in a 1972 short story called "The Big Space F*ck" (without the fig leaf over the offending vowel). Vonnegut imagines a near future marked by ecological and cultural devastation, in which the only human endeavor uniting the world is a plan to launch a rocket ship full of semen to the Andromeda Galaxy, in the hope of creating a new race.

Meanwhile, the story's main characters have discovered that, thanks to a new law, their adult daughter is suing them for "ruining her when she was a child." The implication is that, even if the mission to space bears fruit, we should expect anything but gratitude.

Vonnegut's story imagines parental legal responsibility in terms of children's narcissism; no real harm or trauma is implied. But when Lisa Belkin raises the issue in her Yahoo article, "Is It A Crime to Raise a Killer?", the plaintiff is a third party, and the issue is deadly serious.

Belkin tells a story that is shocking in its familiarity: a mentally ill teenage boy pleads guilty to killing a 12-year-old girl, leaving a family bereft and a community in turmoil. The father of the victim alleges that the parents should have seen the signs that their son was disturbed, sought and received help, and prevented the murder from every happening. He has even started a petition on to push for "Autumn's Law," which would stipulate prison time for guilty parents.

Belkin's story went live on September 12, and, 8411 comments later, she has clearly touched a nerve.

I'm fortunate enough that I can't claim to know what it feels like to lose a child to murder, but my disagreement with this approach should not be mistaken for a lack of empathy. Nonetheless, holding parents criminally responsible would constitute bad legislation, even worse public policy, and a distressing sign that we as a country have completely failed to understand the relationships among individuals, families, and public institutions.

On the surface, the drive to criminalize the bad parenting of disturbed children looks like the return of the worst kind of stigma. Among families in the autism community, for example, the memory of the "Refrigerator mother" (identified as the cause of autism by the now notorious fraud Bruno Bettelheim) still stings.

Yet "Autumn's Law" is motivated by a more complex understanding of mental illness. Parents are considered responsible not because they are the root cause of their children's problems, but because they allegedly failed to get their children help. Their crime is not coldness or abuse, but a lack of vigilance.

The problems with "Autumn's Law" are philosophical, political, and ethical. At the heart of it is a demand for justice. But this is a demand that can never truly be met. What possible punishment could make up for a murdered child? In what way does imprisoning or impoverishing the parents make for a more just world?

Nor does such a law have the serious potential to prevent similar crimes. Does anyone really imagine that the only thing preventing parents from getting help for their children is the absence of a deterrent? Say what you will about the parents of disturbed children, but one thing they tend not to lack is motivation.

Politically, movements such as the push for "Autumn's Law" are disturbingly retrograde. Though it is proposed for the most sincere of reasons, "Autumn's Law" advances the agenda of one of the most pernicious forces in American political life. Here I mean neoliberalism, a term I hate almost as much as the phenomenon it describes. But it has its uses.

In the name of the autonomous individual (and, in a pinch, that individual's presumably supportive family), any possibility that social and governmental institutions might actually have a role to play in improving people's lives is automatically discounted. Individual disadvantages are immediately assumed to be their own personal fault and responsibility (or that of their family), while we doggedly insist on ignoring the larger societal forces that contribute to human suffering.

There are already laws that punish entire families in public housing for the crimes of one of their children: all it takes is a teenager's drug conviction to force the whole family out on the street. In similar situations, seizure laws allow for a family's assets to be confiscated. Our individualistic nation has become quite infatuated with collective guilt and collective punishment.

Finally, "Autumn's Law" presumes that effective help is always available, that a well-funded, well-organized social safety net is always in place to catch us when we fall. But the same logic of exclusively personal responsibility has served to justify the dismantling of the very services that are so desperately needed.

Even if you reject the broader political argument, the fact remains: punishing parents only serves to provide a false sense of comfort, pathologizing "bad" families and allowing everyone else to think that, as long as they're good parents, it can't happen to them.

Good luck with that. Your chances may be better than those of Vonnegut's mission to the Andromeda Galaxy, but I wouldn't bet the family farm on it.