The parents and guardians of children may be held legally responsible when a child commits a criminal act. Parents and guardians are held responsible under the theory of “vicarious liability.” While a “parent” may be anyone who exercises control or authority over the child, typically a custodial parent is the one held criminally responsible for a child’s acts. Parental vicarious liability stems from a parent’s responsibility to supervise and educate a child.

Parental Vicarious Liability Coverage

The types of acts typically covered by vicarious liability statutes are: malicious or willful destruction of property, destruction of property in connection with hate crimes, theft and shoplifting, injury caused by firearms, music file sharing and computer hacking, vandalism to school or government property, and defacement of historical markers, gravesites, or flags.

Child Access Protection Laws

Child access protection laws make it a crime for a parent to allow a child access to firearms. Some states hold an adult responsible for storing a firearm in a way that allows a child access to the firearm. Some statutes impose an enhanced penalty if the child injures or kills a person with the firearm. Exceptions exist if the firearm is stored properly in a locked box or secured with a trigger lock, if the firearm was used in self defense, or the child unlawfully enters a home and accesses the firearm.

Parents can also be held criminally liable if they know or should have known their child possessed a firearm and failed to take the firearm from the child. Criminal penalties typically range from a misdemeanor conviction for allowing access to a firearm or a felony conviction if the firearm injures or kills a person.

Computer Hacking and Music File Downloading

Parents and grandparents have been held responsible for such criminal acts as computer hacking and music file downloading, even if they were unaware that programs for downloading music existed or that their children were committing such acts.

Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor

In addition to being held liable for the acts of their children, parents may be held criminally liable for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A parent who fails to exercise reasonable care, supervision, control and protection of a minor may be charged with this crime, which can result in a misdemeanor conviction, jail time, and a fine.

Financial Responsibility for Criminal Acts

State laws vary regarding the financial responsibility imposed upon a parent for the criminal acts of a child. Some statutes require a parent to pay criminal fines and restitution. Other states require parents to pay for the state’s costs incurred when a child is processed through the juvenile detention system and/or to reimburse the state for the care, housing, support and treatment of the child while he remains under a state agency’s supervision.

Some states have less stringent laws and require parents to attend the hearings in which their children are adjudicated delinquent. The parents are often responsible for paying the costs associated with these adjudications.

Avoiding Liability for Criminal Acts

While it may be difficult to avoid responsibility for a child’s criminal acts, it is possible to do so. A parent may be able to prove that a child did not willfully or intentionally commit an act, that the child was “emancipated,” the child was institutionalized, or the parent did not have “custody” of the child at the time the criminal act was committed.


A parent, guardian, or supervisory adult may be held criminally liable for the criminal acts of a child. A parent may be required to pay restitution, fines and penalties associated with the crime. Some crimes for which a parent may be held liable are access to a firearm, computer hacking, damage to property, vandalism, and shoplifting. In addition, a parent may be held criminally liable for contributing to the delinquency of a minor if he or she fails to properly supervise the child.