Is being a less-than stellar parent a crime? The Washington County District Attorney thinks so. Earlier this week the Oregon Court of Appeals threw out a conviction for Criminal Mistreatment in the First Degree here. The case was the result of a household dog biting a child on a number of occasions. While certainly not a model for good parenting skills, was this a crime?
Not according to the Court of Appeals. The parents were charged with Criminal Mistreatment in the First Degree. Under Oregon law a person commits the crime of Criminal Mistreatment in the First Degree when: The person, in violation of a legal duty to provide care for a dependent person or elderly person, or having assumed the permanent or temporary care, custody or responsibility for the supervision of a dependent person or elderly person, intentionally or knowingly causes physical injury or injuries to the dependent person or elderly person." This seems a fairly straightforward law. You should not cause injury to those you are entrusted to watch over; for example your children or the elderly.
What made the Washington County prosecution odd and deeply troubling is that the parents themselves were never accused of causing any injuries. Rather, the DA argued successfully at the trial court level that because the parents allowed the children to be near a dog that had bitten them in the past, that the parents thereby "knowingly" caused the injuries to the child. Thankfully the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction on the ground that the Criminal Mistreatment law plainly requires that the parents must have themselves engaged in assaultive behavior.
Keeping a biting dog in a home with children is obviously a terrible parenting choice. It is a decision that should trigger the intervention of local DHS child welfare workers and local animal control. The children or the animal should be removed from the home and the parents forced to attend appropriate family education or counseling. But the overly aggressive and creative application of the criminal justice system to fix this type of issue is not the answer.
The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to adequately address most social and family issues like this. Appropriate social agencies have the authority to intervene in these cases. They have the authority to force the parents to improve their parenting decisions or face the potential for termination of the ir parental rights. Saddling the parents with a criminal conviction simply adds insult to injury. A criminal conviction will make it harder for the parents to find housing, to find a job, to engage in school and community based activities. A criminal conviction simply compounds the family's problems, making it less likely that they will succeed in becoming viable parents and members of our community.