Parent's Guide: breaking the law, brain injury & your child
Young people can challenge adult
authority by engaging in acts that are illegal or unwise.
When these acts interfere with learning and social relationships
or when there's a risk of harm, it's important to step in quickly
and firmly. If such acts bring the young person into contact with
the criminal justice system, it's important to try to get the
system to make decisions that help the young person in learning
more positive ways of behaving.
Parents are usually the ones who have to make sure that the
court recognizes the effects of a brain injury, and brings down a
ruling that is designed to assist their child-a potentially
difficult and challenging task.
Young people with a brain injury may be
particularly vulnerable because of problems such as impulsiveness,
poor judgement, social isolation and the need for peer
Their involvement may range from minor illegal activities such
as shoplifting or vandalism, to potentially harmful stunts such as
train surfing or throwing rocks at cars; or more seriously, to
assaults (sometimes in gangs) and crimes such as burglary or car
theft (with the associated risk of accidents).
Most parents are distressed if their child breaks the law or is
caught in an illegal activity. Having to deal with police and
possibly appear in court can be very upsetting.
The nature of the police and court systems makes it difficult to
cater for individual needs. Again, it usually falls to parents to
ensure that the court recognizes the effects of a brain
injury in its ruling.
The offence may be a 'one-off' mistake which probably won't be
repeated, but parents may want assistance to ensure that the
situation doesn't occur again. It can help to identify the reasons
for the young person's behaviour (possibly with an authoritative
brain injury specialist).
- Is it a case of 'limit testing' gone wrong?
- Is the young person vulnerable to the wrong sort of
- Is the offence really an expression of anger and
Answers to these questions will help in deciding what to do. It's
important to decide whether there are some positive things that can
be done to lessen the risk of more illegal activities - for
example, helping the young person to develop good communication
skills, or finding a productive outlet for youthful energy.
Sometimes these needs aren't recognized because police and court
personnel are not trained in brain injury issues.
The criminal justice system
If your son or daughter has been charged by the police for
allegedly committing a crime, check to see if you can obtain legal
aid in your State. If unsuccessful, you'll need to engage a
solicitor. If possible, chose someone who is experienced in
representing people with disabilities. At the first court date,
your solicitor will probably ask for an adjournment in order to
find out what evidence the police have. You or your solicitor
should write to the police for a copy of evidence, which will help
in deciding whether your young person should plead 'guilty' or 'not
Give your solicitor any information you have regarding your
son's or daughter's brain injury, including
neuropsychological assessments and/or doctors' reports. You may be
required to obtain more current assessments. Any report should
provide information on issues that the court can take into account,
e.g. 'impulsivity' or being easily led.
It's important for friends and/or family members to attend
court, as support for the young person tends to create a favourable
impression (as well as its benefits for the young person). Don't
blame yourself. This can happen to anyone, and many of the effects
of a brain injury can work to increase the risk. The
Brain Injury Association in your State should be able to link you
up with the appropriate legal supports.
References and further information
Many thanks to Brain Foundation Victoria for permission to
adapt their material for this fact sheet.