Research into practice

Parenting orders were designed by the government to give advice and support to the parents of young offenders. They were given the force of law because it was felt that voluntary agreements may not always be effective.

The orders compel parents to attend classes on parenting skills with the aim of improving relationships with their children. The classes are usually held as part of parenting projects.

Section eight of the the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 gives four circumstances when a parenting order can be made:

  • When a child safety order is made in respect of a child.
  • When an antisocial behaviour order or sex offender order is made in respect of a child or young person.
  • When a child or young person is convicted of an offence.
  • When a person is convicted of an offence under section 443 (failure to comply with school attendance order) or section 444 (failure to secure regular attendance at school of registered pupil) of the Education Act 1996.

In 1999, the Youth Justice Board funded 42 pilot parenting projects, which were allowed to develop independently.1 The main focus was on the parents and was either preventive, working with a wide group of parents, or therapeutic, targeting parents in crisis.

Staff overwhelmingly saw mothers in the four projects I evaluated. One major complaint by the mothers was that in the courtroom they, rather than their child, had been made to feel like the offender. It was also difficult for the parent to acknowledge that they had developed a dysfunctional relationship with their child, and they had to relearn how to deal with conflicts.

I sat in on parenting groups and interviewed several parents. It became clear that strategies could be taught to parents so they could deal with aggressive behaviour without resorting to violence or rejection. Consistency was a major problem, but it could be taught. The absent parent often had a profound effect on the family dynamics. This was especially so when there had been domestic violence, usually when it was seen by the child.

Some mothers had experienced multiple problems, including domestic violence. Others simply had problems in exerting control over their children. Many of the children had special educational needs, did poorly at school or did not attend, had behavioural problems, and were under threats of eviction because of being a nuisance. In many instances the relationship between the parents and the statutory services had become very poor, with a high level of distrust.

The projects had succeeded in working with many of the disaffected families despite these difficulties and regardless of whether contact was voluntary or because of a parenting order. Parents commented on the need for accessible project workers, who were perceived as different than the formal agencies with which the parents had contact. All these workers were engaged as part of the pilot projects and were therefore not always directly identified as being part of an existing formal agency, which may be important.

For some parents, this was the first time that they had support, despite requesting it. Many expressed regret that the group process was too short.

1D Ghate and M Ramella, Positive Parenting: The National Evaluation of the Youth Justice Board’s Parenting Programme, YJB, 2002. The full report can be found on the Policy Research Bureau website under “publishing and dissemination”.

Anthony Goodman is principal lecturer, school of health and social sciences, Middlesex University.

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