Parens patriae is a concept that originated with the King of England during the 12th century. It literally means “the father of the country.” Applied to juvenile matters, parens patriae means that the king is in charge of, makes decisions about, and has the responsibility for all matters involving juveniles. Within the scope of early English common law, parents had primary responsibility in rearing children. However, as children advanced beyond the age of seven, they acquired some measure of responsibility for their own actions. Accountability to parents was shifted gradually to the state whenever youth seven years of age or older violated the law. In the name of the king, chancellors in various districts adjudicated matters involving juveniles and the offenses they committed. Juveniles had no legal rights or standing in any court; they were the sole responsibility of the king or his agents. Their future depended largely upon chancellor decisions. In effect, children were wards of the court, and the court was vested with the responsibility of safeguarding their welfare (McGhee and Waterhouse, 2007).
Chancery courts of 12th- and 13th-century England (and in later years) performed various tasks, including the management of children and their affairs as well as care for the mentally ill and incompetent. Therefore, an early division of labor was created, involving a three-way relationship among the child, the parent, and the state. The underlying thesis of parens patriae was that the parents were merely the agents of society in the area of childrearing, and that the state had the primary and legitimate interest in the upbringing of children. Thus, parens patriae established a type of fiduciary or trust-like parent–child relationship, with the state able to exercise the right of intervention to limit parental rights (Friday and Ren, 2006).
Since children could become wards of the court and subject to its control, the chancellors were concerned about the future welfare of these children. The welfare interests of chancellors and their actions led to numerous rehabilitative and/or treatment measures, including placement of children in foster homes or assigning them to perform various tasks or work for local merchants (Rockhill, Green, and Furrer, 2007). Parents had minimal influence on these child placement decisions.
In the context of parens patriae, it is easy to trace this early philosophy of child management and its influence on subsequent events in the United States, such as the child savers movement, houses of refuge, and reform schools. These latter developments were both private and public attempts to rescue children from their environments and meet some or all of their needs through various forms of institutionalization.
Modern Interpretations of Parens Patriae
Parens patriae continues in all juvenile court jurisdictions in the United States. The persistence of this doctrine is evidenced by the wide range of dispositional options available to juvenile court judges and others involved with the early stages of offender processing in the juvenile justice system. Typically, these dispositional options are either nominal or conditional, meaning that the confinement of any juvenile for most offenses is regarded as a last resort. Nominal or conditional options involve various sanctions (e.g., verbal warnings or reprimands, diversion, probation, making financial restitution to victims, performance of community service, participation in individual or group therapy, or involvement in educational programs), and they are intended to reflect the rehabilitative ideal that has been a major philosophical underpinning of parens patriae.