Parents to Be Held Accountable for Kids' Graffiti in Chicago

Thanks to new initiatives around the country, a growing number of communities are holding parents responsible for their children's delinquent actions, from bullying to drunken driving to shoplifting, and now, in Chicago, for graffiti. Fed up with paying for its $1-million-a-year subway vandalism problem, the Chicago Transit Authority has announced a new get-tough approach: Making parents of taggers pay for cleanup costs.

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The Chicago initiative, announced on Tuesday, seeks to recover the cost of graffiti cleanup and repairs of rail equipment — as well as any lost revenue caused by trains being out of service, court costs, and attorney fees. It will do so by suing adult taggers and, in the case of minors, invoking the Illinois Parental Responsibility Law, which allows for “recovery of damages from parents or legal guardians due to the willful injury to person or property by minor children.”

The CTA, in fact, has already filed four lawsuits totaling $13,109 against the parents or legal guardians of eight minors this week.

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“We hope these lawsuits will serve as a deterrent to all those who might be tempted to vandalize a train car, station, or other CTA property,” CTA President Forrest Claypool announced in a statement. “Our cameras will capture the crime, and police will use those images to find and arrest you.” Cleaning up graffiti is a priority across the nation, Virginia Miller, a spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association, tells Yahoo Shine, because of what's known as the broken-window theory — or the idea that vandalism begets more vandalism and crime, and "a perception that it's an unsafe place."

Chicago’s crackdown is the latest specific use of general parental responsibility laws, which exist in almost every state across the nation. But according to Gary Wickert, a Wisconsin attorney who specializes in subrogation (an insurer’s right to pursue third-party payment after a loss to the insured), the CTA’s move is unique. “Pursuing recovery for vandalism is not unusual,” Wickert tells Yahoo Shine. “But stating that there will be a policy pursuing it is rare, and, of course, raises eyebrows.” That’s because, as he notes, “most people are not comfortable with the notion that someone can be held responsible for the actions of another without having caused any damage themselves.”

The idea still has plenty of fans, though, as evidenced by the many individuals and municipalities that have taken parents to task for their kids’ actions. In 2013, towns in Wisconsin, Texas, and Florida sought to hold parents responsible for incidents in which their children bullied others. And last year, parents in Connecticut, Florida, and Pennsylvania were held responsible when their teens and their friends were found to be drinking on their property.

While most of the state parental responsibility laws address vandalism, only a handful, including those in California, Hawaii, and Wisconsin, specifically mention graffiti. Still, even in states that don’t specifically call it out, says Wickert, it’s not necessary for local municipalities, or governmental agencies such as the CTA, to create ordinances in addition to the state laws. “Probably it’s for effect more than anything else,” he notes. “So parents around the city will say, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to get a grip on our child that’s out of control,’ which maybe they should have already done.”

Parental responsibility laws tend to stir up controversy, notes Eve Brank, an expert on such laws and an associate professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While those in favor of them believe they’ll make parents more attentive, critics say the laws target single parents and are just “an easy, cost-free way to look like you’re tough on juvenile crime without addressing the underlying issues,” Brank tells Yahoo Shine. Plus, she adds, “we just don’t have the empirical evidence to show that they work.”

But for now, in Chicago, officials seem focused on the financial reality of the situation. As CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase tells the Chicago Tribune, “Unlike in criminal court, where it is left up to judges to decide whether to order restitution, the civil lawsuits allow us to recoup all the costs related to the damage.”

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