My kid just shoplifted. Now what?

Children, Crime

With the frenzy of holiday shopping comes shoplifting. About 2 million people are caught shoplifting every year, and 25 percent of them are children. Seventy-two percent of juveniles who shoplift don’t plan to do so in advance; it just happens. After your initial freak-out, what should you do if your kid is caught shoplifting?

Sticky little fingers

Very young children (under five) don’t even really know what shoplifting is and it’s natural for a child to pick up and hold something he likes in a store, or even carry it out of the store without you noticing—particularly if you are shopping during the pre-holiday madness of December. In these instances, you should take the item away from your child, explain it’s not his, and say “we don’t take things that are not ours,” or the like.

If your child has managed to smuggle the item out of the store, the morally correct thing to do is take it back, or return to the store and pay for it. You don’t want to be accused of knowingly allowing your child to shoplift; all 50 states have parental responsibility laws, making parents liable for acts done by their children. A handful of those states specifically call out theft and/or shoplifting as a violation, so if you take something back, be sure to make it clear you had no idea what was going on, and you’re correcting the behavior.

Pre-adolescent peer pressure

Probably most pre-teen children have shoplifted something at some point, often egged on by friends, and usually it’s something small like a candy bar. If you find out on your own that your child has lifted something from a store, take your child to the store and make him or her apologize and return the item, or pay for it. Those parental responsibility laws still apply; however the likeliest scenario is a manager will spend some time lecturing him or her, and not actually involve the authorities. If this scenario plays out repeatedly, however, you may need to get your child into counseling.

Tricky teens

Everything becomes more complex when your household thief is a teen. It’s up to the store to decide whether to prosecute. If the store personnel are convinced that this the first time your child has tried the five-fingered discount, they might call you and release the teen to you, letting your miscreant off with a warning. They might also ban your son or daughter from the store. If the police are called, your teen will most likely be charged as a juvenile (more on this later).

What if the store doesn’t know about the theft, but you find out? You can always call the police yourself to report the crime, but if the store has no proof, not much is likely to happen. This could serve to scare your teen, but it could also create a legal mess that you may not be able to untangle easily should the store decide to cooperate and prosecute. The better option is to take your teen to the store and make him or her personally apologize and return the stolen goods.

If your child shoplifts and is not prosecuted, you might still get a letter from an attorney representing the store, demanding you pay for their shoplifting prevention costs. You aren’t required to pay this based on a letter. Your only responsibility is if an actual lawsuit is brought.

Criminal penalties for teens

When a juvenile shoplifts and is prosecuted, there are a variety of penalties. Release to the parents with a warning is common for a first-time offense. The court could also order the teen to pay restitution to the store, attend shoplifting prevention class, or perform community service. Your teen could also be placed on a kind of probation through the state juvenile department, to make sure he or she doesn’t commit another crime.

In very rare cases, your teen could be removed from your home and placed in a juvenile facility, but this is likely only if your son or daughter has repeatedly gotten into trouble, particularly with more serious crimes. If your teen is convicted of shoplifting, consult a lawyer about sealing the record so it doesn’t impact his life as an adult.

If you know your adolescent is shoplifting, you should consider the underlying reasons. Statistics indicated that about a third of teens who shoplift are depressed, while others are acting out of anger toward the parents or others. If you suspect that your child is depressed or unduly angry, you should get him or her help no matter how the legal consequences play out.

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