How to Help a Child Charged with a Crime

First and foremost, this post is does not contain legal advice, nor should you consider it to be legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, contact an attorney in your local jurisdiction. While this post was written by a former lawyer, the focus of this post is about helping a child, not representing the child in his case.

Kids do stupid things sometimes

The reason I can speak on this topic is that for several years I used to be a lawyer. I was frequently hired by parents to represent and defend their teenage or young adult children against criminal charges. What I saw frequently were the different attitudes that parents have about the situation (and the case outcomes).

One of the first things you can do to help your child charged with a crime is to keep your calm. The child has entered a world of chaos, and you can bring stability to their otherwise out of control world. Don’t add to it with your own personal drama.

Did your son or daughter get arrested? Or did something happen that makes you concerned that they could be arrested? (A fairly common issue is teenage boys having sexual contact with a girl at school who might be at the same level of maturity but is legally too young for them). It can be imperative that you take action in the early stages of any situation or investigation to achieve the outcome that you think is best (or right).

However, (even though I just advocated quick action in the previous paragraph), before you do anything at all, you need to stop and take a few minutes to think. Maybe you’ve gotten a frantic call telling you something awful happened. If you’ve never thought about what you might do in this situation, you need to make a decision about what position you will take on the alleged wrongdoing.

As parents, we are presented with many opportunities to either shield our children from the outcomes of their actions, or to give them the opportunity to experience fully the consequences of what they have done.

Mistakes are prime learning opportunities.

How you respond to this situation could dramatically change your child’s life, but not necessarily for the worse. Sometimes mistakes involving police officers can be the catalyst for a turning point in a kid’s life.

Some parents believe really strongly that their children should not spend a minute in jail, or suffer any sort of consequences in the court system. Other parents think the child should spend the night in jail, or do a lot more jail time if it was necessary to teach the child a lesson about the situation they got in. This is true even when parents could see that the child had not done anything wrong, or had not committed the crime. They just wanted the child to understand that even associating themselves with people who did these bad things should be something they avoid and the jail time even waiting for the case to get set for trial was valuable.

Do you want them to avoid trouble with the law, or do you want them to feel the full brunt of it? You can delay the decision about the outcome that you think is best until you know a bit more about the situation. But you have to know that coming up soon is the decision to let the child face the consequences of his actions or to do something about it. It is good to take a few minutes before your initial response to the fire to make a plan for what you want to come of all of it.

Another reason to spend a few minutes orienting yourself, preparing your strategy–When your child is arrested or charged with a crime, they may or may not have committed the actions of which they are accused. You cannot assume that because they were arrested, they did anything criminal at all. Police officers are human, but there is nothing about this post that intends to minimize the good work that they do in our communities. Police officers are presented with complicated situations, and they have to deal with people who are motivated to tell police officers thanks that will benefit themselves. Arrest doesn’t always mean guilt.

As a parent (and a former lawyer), I implore you to withhold judgment about what you heard happened, or what you think happened for a while. At least until things calm down, and you have a better idea of what is going on.

The first thing the child usually does is call home

Either way,  as parents, you have to realize that one of the first things your child will do after getting arrested is to call you. In most states, the child will have the rights to make at least one phone call from jail.

In most cases they will call home. They probably don’t know any other phone numbers and if they aren’t given the opportunity to use their cell phone, mom or dad might be the only number they know.

The next thing you need to do, once you’ve calmed down (at least outwardly), is turn your brain on. If there’s been an arrest, the CASE IS ON. Everything your child does and says from hereon can and will be used against him. Don’t help him add to it.

Parents should realize that these calls are generally recorded. In most cases, the only time these phone calls are not recorded is when the person in jail is calling out to an attorney.

A huge mistake kids make when they call their parents from the jail is spill the beans on the phone. They can’t help it. In many cases, they’ve been through something traumatic, and there can be a lot of tears. But those recorded calls are generally used as evidence against the child at a later date.

So if what your child wants to do when they call you is tell you about everything that happened, us parents need to stop them. When they call from jail, remind them that this is not the time to rehash what happened, even though as the parent you want to know what they have done more than anything else in the world.

At that point, you should find out whether or not your child is physically okay, if they are suffering from any sort of medical condition that needs attention, and what the child knows about the plan.

Is the child in jail? Is he going to be held or released? Are the police going to help them get home, or do they need help getting a ride? Is there bail set and if so, how much money is needed to spring them? These are the important questions. Parents will need to hold off on asking or finding out the factual basics of what got the child there in first place. Ultimately, for the parent, this is a good time to reassure the child that it is going to be okay. The jail call is also a good time to help the parents reassure themselves that the child is okay.

After release and homecoming, just hug them.

After you’ve established your calm, and you have used your head, your child needs your love. They just made a big mistake, and they will be concerned at some level that what they did will have changed how you feel about them.

Your child needs your love. In some of worst circumstances, the allegations can be terrible. I won’t debbie-downer your day going through some of my really heartbreaking stories, but just know that it can get pretty bad. You are their mother/father no matter what they’ve done, and you’ll continue to be their mother/father when the case is all over.

Reassure them of the unchangeable fact that you will always love them, no matter what, and you’ll have just done the best possible thing you can do for a child who really screwed up.

After the hug, the talking will have to begin. As a parent, you have to know that the conversations that you have with your child are not protected. There is a privilege between husband and wife, doctors and patients, and other professionals and their clients such as lawyers. What you say to your doctor is privileged, and is generally private and inadmissible as evidence.

But the conversations between parents and children is not one that the courts generally recognize and protect. This means that if your child comes out of jail and tells you everything that happened, you can be called as a witness to testify about what the child had to say.

This may or may not bother you (after all the truth is the truth), but in some cases parents do not want to be dragged into the child’s case as a witness against them. The parent does not have the choice to not testify against their child. All the prosecutor needs is a subpoena and the court has the power of contempt. As a lawyer, in most cases I recommended to parents that they not question their children excessively about the facts to avoid being called as a witness.

Hug it out, but don’t talk it out.

Next, while you won’t necessarily know all of the details about what happened, you will have a good idea of what your child has been charged with, or looks like they will be charged with.

In almost all cases, it is recommended that the child, regardless of age, figure out whether or not he can afford to hire a lawyer. The outcome of a criminal case is potentially long-reaching. A child who is convicted of a felony at age 18 will struggle in life, especially if that felony is one that cannot be cleaned off of his record at a later date.

Help them get a good lawyer, if you can afford it.

I’m not saying that children should not suffer the consequences of their intentional actions. But as a family and as parents, we just have to realize that some of the outcomes of teenage behavior don’t always make sense given the age of the individual.

Teenagers, especially teenage boys, can be pretty stupid. They may think that what they’re doing is fun and enjoyable, when they are actually committing felonies. For example, it is fairly common for teenagers to make simple devices like dry ice bombs. These can be quickly created with water and dry ice. These are actually fairly dangerous weapons, but teenagers just think of them as something that blows up and makes loud noise. If this device is thrown at someone or at someone’s property, or actually explodes and injures someone, this is a potentially very serious case and very serious crime, one that could be punishable by a lot time in jail depending on the seriousness of what happens.

As a parent, we can see both sides of it. We feel for are children who were just playing around and being stupid and not use , but we also have to balance whether or not the outcome, which could be tons of years in jail, really fits the action.

In types of cases, we as parents may be more motivated to help the child by getting a lawyer and having that lawyer try to work out a resolution of the case that makes sense for the child, his maturity, what he stands to learn, and to make right with anyone who is harmed.

Educate yourself about the process, and let the lawyer take the lead

Another thing that a parent should do if a case has gotten started or looks like it might get started is to do their best to educate themselves about the process.

It can be completely nerve-wracking as parents to be only tangentially involved in case. It is your child, but parents are often powerless to really do anything about the situation. (Aside from helping the child get a lawyer after all.)

Some lawyers will be okay with your participation a court case, and some will not. The lawyer-client relationship though, regardless of who is hired or who is paying the bill, is between the child and the child’s lawyer. That’s it.

Even if you pay the bill, you do not get to make the decision that a child should go to jail or not plead guilty or not, or take the case to trial or not. If you tried to assert yourself in a way that causes disruption and trouble between the child and the lawyer, the lawyer will quit the case and you’ll be out all of your money.

The other thing you don’t want to do is be relying upon that lawyer to educate you about the process. The lawyer may be a complete expert about what is happening, but his time comes at a price. Criminal defense lawyers can charge anywhere between $100 and $800 (or even more) an hour.

There’s no reason to have a lawyer spend a few hours with you talking to you about the process when you can go online or go to the local court and breeze through the materials that they have to help people who are in the same situation as you. There are tons of great resources in every state published through the local court system and the state government about the court process. Every state is going to differ slightly, as will every local Court, municipal or County, Township, Province, whatever you have wherever you live.

I can’t guarantee though that you will feel a lot better once you have gotten up to speed on what can be expected throughout the court process. You can provide this information to your child for his benefit, or you can let him do his own research.

This decision to help him (or not) again goes back to the strategies that we spoke about in the very beginning of the case. Remember, at some point, you’ll need to make a decision about what sort of outcome you want to see in the case.

Do you want the child to walk away with a clean record, or do you want the child to face consequences for the act? In some cases it may make sense for the child to walk away with a clean record, and other cases at may not. And some cases it may make the most sense for the child to try and work very hard to earn that clean record, through jail time, probation, community service, suspension of driving privileges, paying a fine, and others.

Expect to have feelings about your child’s bad deeds

I have spoken with a lot of parents whose children, either as minors or as adults, were charged with very serious crimes. What parents often feel is guilt and shame.

Parents feel guilty for having raised a child who does something heinous and hurtful. Unfortunately, there are many people in their surrounding society who will also blame the parents for the behavior of the child, even if it is not at all justified in any way.

In my experience, people who break the law come from good families and bad families, from families where the parents were 100% engaged in from families where the parents were disengaged and absent. Crimes cross every gender, age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status.

But regardless, there are people out there who want to point fingers and vilify the parents of a child who commits a crime. In the case of a very serious crime, parents will have to do double duty. They will have to do what they can to support their child through a very stressful and possibly expensive process, and they will also have to support themselves through a situation where which could mean the loss of their child.

In the most serious of cases, parents may be looking at a long-term incarceration of their child, in a place many states away from where they live, so far that the parent may not have the opportunity to see them in-person again.

So parents may feel guilt and shame, but also grief. The relationship of the parent and child is not changed because of what the child did. But the parent has to watch both angles of this, to do what is best for their child and also to do what is best for themselves.

In some cases, what is best for the child and for the parents is for the parents to be very involved in the preceding, and in some cases it is better that the children the parents back away and not be involved at all.

Summary list of what parents need to remember if their child is arrested:

1. Everything that the child tells his parents is evidence. Parents can be forced or compelled to tell a judge or a grand jury what’s a child said to them.

2. If parents get involved and ask other people to make anything specific statements about what happened or what didn’t happen, or offer to give them anything of value in exchange for statements (or not to provide a statement) especially if what the parent wants them to say is not true, the parent can be charged with witness tampering crimes.

3.  Just about every contact with law enforcement is recorded nowadays. If the child is on the phone with you from jail, that is being recorded. If there is a police car nearby, most likely there is a camera on that car that is recording everything that is happening. If you are in a law enforcement facility, to pick up the child for example, you are being recorded.

4.  One of the best things a parent can do for their child regardless of how the parent feels about what the child did or what actions the child committed or how the child should be punished for said actions, is to help the child find a lawyer. This doesn’t always mean that the parent should pay for or supervise the child’s interactions with the lawyer. In many cases parents can’t afford the high cost of an attorney. In most cases it is better than that the child apply for the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer at least because your child should not be attending court on their own without help.

5.  In the court case, the child goes to stand in front of the judge alone. Or next to his lawyer. As the parent, you do not get to go with him and stand next to him oh, tell him what to say, or you can support him at the silent. In a court case, regardless of the age, a child walks forward alone.

6. Your child needs your love and support more than he needs to learn from you or to be judged by you. You can stand by your child and support him without enabling him or excusing what he did.