It could be a triffic citation, or a felony, but you may be looking at charges against your child. The legal system can be confusing and intimidating, especially when you are in shock, and possibly even embarrassed.
It’s natural to feel alienated from the process since you don’t speak the legal language and professionals can appear to be cold and mechanical. Still, there are ways to deal with these realities, and turn the situation into a more positive and valuable learning experience, particularly for your child. Here are some suggestions from a probation officer:
1. Don’t panic or overreact. If you do, you probably won’t get all of the facts, nor will they be straight. It’s easy enough to shut down communication with a teenager, and right now you need to know what happened. Your child is most likely upset, either because he/she has been wrongly accused, or because they know they have done something wrong and have to face it. You will find out more if you control your reactions long enough to hear your child’s story, and it may take some gentle and patient prodding.
2. Address the issue of guilt or innocence. The bottom line for your child is, “Did you do it?” Don’t badger, but ask clear, concise and relevant questions. After you have the facts, decide if your child is admitting or denying the charge, then approach the matter from that stance. Naturally you should admit the truth, but not everyone who is accused is guilty.
It is not a good idea to deny charges that are true. Not only will it drag things out, doing so will suggest to your child that honesty is not the best policy and that the system is a game to be played and won, regardless of the morality involved. It is absolutely the wrong message to give a teenager.
3. Reassure your child. One complication that arises from an arrest is the child’s fear that he/she has destroyed your confidence, love and respect. Reassure them of your love and tell them (yes — tell them — don’t assume they know) that this situation will not change that bond, even though you may not be happy with their behavior.
4. Ask questions. By now you have already questioned your child, so when you deal with the professionals, don’t be afraid to ask some more. Feel free to call telephone numbers that are listed on the ticket, or the appointment letter, and ask about the upcoming hearing. If you can, speak to the officer your child will be seeing. Get a feeling for the process and find out what you need to do to prepare. When you do appear for the hearing, aks about anything you don’t understand. No one will think you’re foolish, or stupid. It’s easy for practitioners to forget what a shaking experience this is for most people. Remind them that this is new to you.
5. Don’t worry about what the neighbors will think. They probably aren’t aware anyway, since juvenile matters are generally not open to public scrutiny. Decide among family members what you will and won’t talk about outside the home, then stick to it. If you feel it is a situation you need to share in order to gain strength, or to help others, then by all means, do so.
6. Work with the authorities. Your relationship with any peace officer can make or break your child’s experience. First, agree with them regarding common goals, then cooperate. You can undermine their efforts to redirect your child or you can help each other enforce the limits imposed. But don’t abdicate your responsibility or your authority. You are still the primary care-giver. If, for some reason, a probation officer is assigned to your child and it isn’t working, ask to speak to a supervisor, and try to work things out. But be objective in your discussion. If you go in guns-a-blazing you may be considered a hot-head and the supervisor will automatically assume you are to blame for the breakdown, rather than taking a look at the officer’s conduct.
7. Approach the situation with optimism and faith, if possible. You don’t want your child to “get off the hook” for something he/she has done, but you do want them to learn something. Look for and encourage wisdom in the judge, the probation officer, and anyone else with whom your child will come into contact. This is not the last word in your child’s life, and you should expect things to get better.