Gender implications for parents?
Research on the effects of policies directed at parents in the educational and child protection systems suggests mothers are disproportionately burdened and blamed by the encouragement of ‘parental’ involvement and responsibility in these systems. The policy focus on parental responsibility and the involvement of parents in the youth justice system has the same potential to discriminate against female carers.
Parenting orders, introduced by ss 8-11 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, are triggered if the child or young person is subject to a child safety order, an anti-social behaviour order or a sex offender order, is convicted of a criminal offence or fails to comply with a school attendance order. Parenting orders can last up to 12 months and can specify particular requirements, if that would be desirable to prevent further anti-social behaviour or offending. Parents must also attend parenting classes or counselling for a concurrent period not exceeding three months and not more than once a week. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 widened the scope and use of parenting orders, giving the court the power to impose a residential requirement in the order. Section 25 of the Act also puts parenting contracts on a statutory footing so that failure to enter into or comply with the terms of a voluntary ‘contract’ made between a parent and a youth offending team can be taken into account when the court decides whether or not to make a parenting order.
These are potentially very controlling orders, notwithstanding their aim of helping parents to acquire more effective parenting skills. The government’s guidance on reparation orders gives a similarly ambivalent message to parents:
The Government believes that parents have an important role to play in supporting their children when they are involved in any court proceedings. Magistrates’ courts, including youth courts, have powers to enforce parental attendance at court where appropriate. Section 34A of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 provides that where a child or young person is charged with an offence or is for any other reason brought before a court, the court may in any case – and shall in the case of a child or young person who is under the age of 16 – require a person who is a parent or guardian to attend at the court during all stages of the proceedings, unless the court is satisfied that it would be unreasonable to do so.
A survey by Campbell (see below) would suggest that, in these new processes, mothers are again bearing the brunt of involvement and, in this case, potentially being stigmatised. For example, the pilots for parenting orders revealed that 80 per cent of the children and young people involved were males, but over 80 per cent of the parents involved were females. Despite the relative invisibility in the youth justice system of the problematic situation of young offenders’ mothers, the government’s proposal in Youth Justice – The Next Steps to encourage youth justice agencies to make more use of parenting orders and contracts ‘more actively engaging fathers, making sure both parents generally come to court and ensuring courts consider a Parenting Order when they fail to attend court [emphasis in the original]’ is of concern. Arguably, ‘the Government, the Home Office and the Youth Justice Board are reluctant to confront the stark correlation between gender, violence and anti-social behaviour’.
Further, given the currently significant ‘cross-overs’ of law and resources between youth justice and child protection/children’s services, the impact on families of the above policy developments is greater than might be anticipated. Children who are not offenders – and their parents – are being dealt with by youth justice teams, whilst relevant civil law measures are increasingly being backed up with criminal sanctions. The disciplinary net, justified by a focus on actual or potential juvenile offending or misbehaviour, is being cast over a much larger number of boys and girls and mothers and fathers.