The Role of the Parent during Juvenile Interrogation


I am currently in the process of preparing this year’s syllabus for the companion course that I teach with the Juvenile Justice Clinic entitled, “The Criminal Lawyering Process.”  It is designed to introduce clinic students to North Carolina juvenile court practice and procedure as well as to the issues commonly confronted by juvenile defenders.

One of the most difficult concepts for students (and many lawyers) to grasp is that of the role of the juvenile defender, as we are bound to represent what the client herself articulates as her goals and preferences, rather than being guided by our own view of what is in the youth’s “best interests.”  A related concept that students often find challenging is the limited role of the child’s parents during the course of representation; it is the client and not her parents who ultimately makes the critical decisions in the case, including whether to admit or have an adjudicatory hearing and whether or not to testify.  Parents of juveniles sometimes balk at this ethical rule, as they are accustomed to serving as the ultimate decision-maker for their son or daughter in nearly every other setting.

The question of the proper impact and role of the parent arises most often in the context of the interrogation of juveniles.  A few states (including Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina) require a parent or guardian to be present during the custodial questioning of a youth by law enforcement (the specifics depend on the statute); in states where this is not the law, advocates have pushed for such an amendment under the assumption that a parent will adequately protect a youth from the intimidation and trickery that may be utilized by the police.

Yet, those of us who have represented juveniles know that when parents are present during interrogation, they can often hurt the defense case.  Parents may inadvertently give their children incorrect legal advice.  They, themselves, can fall under the sway and pressure of the officer conducting the questioning.  Or parents may themselves pressure their child to admit to wrongdoing, believing it is the “right thing to do” from a moral and values-based perspective but without appreciating the legal consequences.

Over the years, I have spoken with parents whose children have been questioned by an unrelated adult regarding an alleged act of wrongdoing.  In some cases, the other adult is a police officer or school resource officer.  In others it is not a law enforcement officer but a merchant or neighbor, and the “case” is not likely to be referred to delinquency court.  Even so, there can be potentially significant consequences if the child admits to the conduct, from school suspension to removal from an organization or program.

Parents have asked me what I would do in these situations.  Would I — a veteran criminal defense attorney — forbid my child from “cooperating” with an investigation?  Would I insist that the matter be handled within the private realm of the family, rather than the public realm?  Or would I participate in the questioning and take steps to convince my child to “come clean” and tell the truth about what happened.

There are no easy answers here, as a lot depends on the specific interests at stake and the potential consequences.  Yet I have found — whether the matter is serious or relatively minor — that parents do not typically represent their child’s “expressed interest,” which is to avoid questioning, go home, and not have to deal with the results of their bad decisions.  Instead, we tend to act as parents do — wanting our children to take responsibility for what they have done, wanting them to understand that their actions have consequences, wanting them to apologize to those who have been negatively impacted. In other words, parents tend to act based on our view of what is in the child’s “best interest.”

The bottom line is that there are almost always potential downsides of parental presence during juvenile interrogation, and most parents should not be expected to serve as defense counsel for our own children — whether at the police station or in the principal’s office.  When the consequences of a confession are potentially serious — or if they are unclear or unknown — a juvenile needs an objective, disinterested adult (a criminal lawyer, if possible) to offer advise and counsel.  Not a mom or dad.


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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Clinical Legal Education, Criminal /Juvenile Defense, Interrogation, Juveniles, State Laws, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Role of the Parent during Juvenile Interrogation

  1. Maureen Dwyer says:

    This was a really interesting and thought-provoking piece. I am thinking about it on many levels and from various perspectives – as a lifelong educator of kids and parents, and also as a parent myself. Thanks for posting!

  2. Pingback: What is a Parent’s Role When Their Child is Being Interrogated? | Children and the Law Blog

  3. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks to our friends at the University of Houston Law Center’s Children and the Law Blog for featuring this post on their site:

  4. Pingback: We Will Be Launching In The Next Few Months. | Public School Watch

  5. This is one of the most important articles for parents to read in their life & that of their child’s.

    My 13 yr. old son was a witness in a bogus “assault” case the school escalated to criminal charges for no reason other than to be mean & “get” a student they decided they didn’t like. (this child didn’t even have past poor behavior issues & was a good student!!)

    The case so effected me because of the extent of witness tampering & the intimidation & retaliation my son endured from the school resource officer & the principals – just for telling the truth & insisting on not being forced to lie for them. (with me present!!!!)

    Also now learning how high the stakes are with these kids – with the arrest record permanently on their FBI record & the outcome of a dismissal, or acquittal is not added to the record.

    This is just an example of how these bogus arrests effect the child’s future, career choices, success, etc.

    They can’t get into many charter schools, private schools, college scholarships, etc. EVEN when they aren’t charged with crimes, but made made to serve an extremely high punishment for a minor infraction of school handbook code.

    Schools in TX have been found guilty of breaking the law & doing this to kids!!!! Schools do not give a hoot about the laws that govern them… their attitude is “you parents & tax payers need to sit down & shut up… you can’t touch us.” <- per a lawyer who used to work representing school districts.

    I've spoken to 2 different military recruiters & they said even if the kiddo gets into high school ROTC after their "sentence" & then comes to them to join the military after graduation for career training, to serve their country and get an education through the GI bill – they tell them no – due to this FBI record.

    Even when the charges were bogus, dropped or an acquittal came from a jury!! The FBI record doesn't include what happened later – just the arrest.

    Making a child who's not even charged with a crime serve probation!!! Another outrage.

    The schools refuse to let parents in on their little dirty secret – that their children can be arrested in school & charged with crimes when none has been committed!

    It's pretty sick.

    I wish this blog was available last year – but when you're sitting there as a parent – you just don't know what to do.

    Thanks so much for this.

  6. Rachel Gassert says:

    This is a very important topic to consider and I wish that probation departments, in particular, would be more aware of this issue and better at communicating with the parents about what the options are for their kids. For example, in one site I’m working in, it’s a common problem that parents refuse to agree with an informal adjustment because they want their kid to have their say in court. If only they understood that there’s so much more risk involved in that option, and I think the probation officer bears some of the responsibility to explain that to them.

  7. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks to our friends at Reclaiming Futures for reposting this piece:

  8. Brittany Madl says:

    i am writing a paper for the downsides of parental presence in a juveniles interrogation i was wondering where i could find more information about parents and how they could hurt and interrogation of their juvenile? or if i could speak to you more on the matter about your ideas of it?