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Family Relationships and the Law

What does Virginia law say about the relationship between me and my parents?

Your parents have the right to “custody and control” of you. Custody and control means you must obey your parents unless they ask you to break the law, and they must take care of you.

Parents must provide you with necessary food, clothing, shelter, and medical care as well as supervision, discipline, protection, and education. They cannot desert or abandon you.

When will my parents stop having “custody and control” of me?

When you turn 18, you are considered an adult. Your parents are no longer legally responsible, nor do they have legal control over you. This is called reaching the “age of majority.”

Under some circumstances, a teen at least 16 years old may petition the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court to be “emancipated.” (Code of Virginia § 16.1-331). The court may declare that the minor is emancipated if it is found that:

(i) the minor has entered into a valid marriage, whether or not that marriage has been terminated by dissolution; or

(ii) the minor is on active duty with any of the armed forces of the United States of America; or

(iii) the minor willingly lives separate and apart from his or her parents or guardians, with the consent or acquiescence of the parents or guardians, and that the minor is or is capable of supporting himself or herself and competently managing his or her own financial affairs.

(Code of Virginia § 16.1-333)

Do my parents have responsibilities for my education?

Yes. First, they must ensure you are enrolled in school. Anyone between the ages of five and 17 is required to attend school. Parents may choose to send their children to a public, private, denominational, or parochial school. If certain requirements are met, parents may also teach their children at home. (Code of Virginia § 22.1-254).

Additionally, Virginia law states that parents of students enrolled in a public school have responsibilities to “assist the school in enforcing the standards of student conduct and compulsory school attendance.” (Code of Virginia § 22.1-279.3).

Do I have to do what my parents say to do?

You have the legal responsibility to follow your parents’ rules and go along with their decisions. However, you may refuse to obey your parents if they ask or tell you to commit a crime.

What may happen if I refuse to obey my parents?

They may discipline you as they deem appropriate as long as they don’t endanger your health or welfare. If you continue serious disobedience, your parents may seek intervention by the juvenile court.

A court may decide that you are a “child in need of supervision,” known as CHINS. Once the court does this, the court will have authority over you and can decide where you will live and what you will do.

Can my parents open mail addressed to me?

Yes. A minor's guardian may control delivery of mail addressed to the minor. If there is no guardian and the minor is unmarried, either parent may receive delivery of the minor's mail. (USPS Domestic Mail Manual, Updated 7/28/13, Section 508.1.4.2)

Can I get a tattoo without my parent’s permission?

If you are younger than 18, Virginia law prohibits your getting a tattoo, except in the presence of your parent or guardian, or when done under medical supervision. Anyone who illegally performs a tattoo is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-371.3)

What is a curfew?

A curfew is a time set to be home. Your parent may set your curfew.

A city or county may establish a legal curfew when minors are not allowed to be out on the street without lawful business. There are usually exceptions when you are traveling to or from work. Check with local city or county officials.

Can I smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol if my parents give permission?

You can never use or possess tobacco. However, your parents can serve you alcohol in your home under certain circumstances (see Virginia Rules section, Alcohol and Tobacco). Your parents cannot give you permission to break the law. Adults, including your parents, and minors may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor if they aid a minor in breaking the law. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-371)

Purchasing, aiding and abetting, or giving alcohol to minors is against the law. (Code of Virginia § 4.1-306 (A))

Parents may be held responsible if someone, as a result of alcohol use:

  • gets into a fight and hurts someone;

  • falls and hurts himself or herself or someone else;

  • sexually assaults someone;

  • damages property;

  • dies from drinking too much; and/or

  • injures or kills someone while driving after leaving the party.

A parent may have a civil liability (meaning parents can be sued) to pay damages if either a partygoer is hurt or a third person is injured. Virginia law recognizes parental liability for negligence if they provide alcohol to a minor who causes injury to another or himself or herself. A parent may also face criminal charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. For example, it is against state law to allow (aid or abet) underage persons to possess or consume alcohol. This is a Class 1 misdemeanor and is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

Parents' liability

What does “parental liability” mean?

Parental liability is the legal term that defines the parent’s responsibility to pay for any damages caused by negligent, intentional, or criminal behavior and acts of his or her child or children.

What if I damage someone else's property? Will my parents have to pay?

In Virginia, parents of persons under 18 years of age may be held liable for up to $2,500 for damages to public or private property. (Code of Virginia §§ 8.01-43 and 8.01-44)

What is the legal definition of Child in Need of Supervision (CHINS-Supervision)?

In Virginia, children who are truant or who run away are defined as Children in Need of Supervision. (Code of Virginia § 16.1-228)

The definition of truancy is:

  • a child who is subject to compulsory school attendance, but is “habitually and without justification absent from school;” and

  • has had an adequate opportunity to receive benefit of educational services and programs required by law to meet the child’s particular educational needs.

  • In addition, the school system must have made reasonable effort to effect the child’s regular attendance and must have provided documentation that the school system has complied with their responsibilities related to compulsory attendance.

The definition of runaway is:

  • a child who, without reasonable cause and without the consent of his/her parent, legal guardian, or placement authority, remains away from or deserts or abandons his/her family on more than one occasion or escapes or remains away from a residential care facility in which he or she has been placed by the court; and

  • such conduct presents clear and substantial danger to the child’s life or health;

  • the child or his or her family is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or services not presently being received; and

  • the intervention of the court is essential to provide treatment, rehabilitation, or services needed by the child or his or her family.

What is the legal definition of Child in Need of Services (CHINS-Services)?

According to Code of Virginia § 16.1-228, “Child in need of services” means (i) a child whose behavior, conduct, or condition presents or results in a serious threat to the well-being and physical safety of the child, or (ii) a child under the age of 14 whose behavior, conduct, or condition presents or results in a serious threat to the well-being and physical safety of another person. However, no child who in good faith is under treatment solely by spiritual means through prayer in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination shall for that reason alone be considered to be a child in need of services, nor shall any child who habitually remains away from or habitually deserts or abandons his family as a result of what the court or the local child protective services unit determines to be incidents of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in the home be considered a child in need of services for that reason alone.

However, to find that a child falls within these provisions, (i) the conduct complained of must present a clear and substantial danger to the child’s life or health or to the life or health of another person, (ii) the child or his or her family is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or services not presently being received, and (iii) the intervention of the court is essential to provide the treatment, rehabilitation, or services needed by the child or his or her family.

Child abuse and neglect

What is child abuse and neglect?

A general definition of child abuse is harm or threat of harm to the health and welfare of a child. A general definition of child neglect is failure to meet parental responsibilities to take care of a child and includes, but is not limited to, failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision.

Child abuse/neglect is defined in Code of Virginia § 16.1-228.

An abused or neglected child is defined as any child under 18 years of age whose parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the child’s care:

  1. causes or threatens to cause a nonaccidental physical or mental injury;

  2. causes or threatens to cause a nonaccidental physical or mental injury during the manufacture or sale of certain drugs;

  3. neglects or refuses to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, emotional nurturing, or health care;

  4. abandons the child;

  5. causes the child to be without parental care or guardianship due to his or her unreasonable absence or mental or physical incapacity;

  6. commits or allows to be committed any illegal sexual act upon a child including incest, rape, fondling, indecent exposure, or prostitution, or allows a child to be used in any sexually explicit visual material; or

  7. knowingly leaves a child alone in the same dwelling with a person who is not related to the child by blood or marriage and who is required to register as a violent sexual offender.

Who is required to report child abuse and neglect?

Anyone may report suspected abuse or neglect; however, Code of Virginia § 63.2-1509 requires that designated professionals who have contact with children immediately report their suspicions. It is not necessary to prove that abuse or neglect has occurred.

Reports can be made by calling your local social services department or the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-552-7096.

Reports may be made anonymously. If you choose to provide your name, it will not be released to the family who was reported, except by court order.

Persons reporting in good faith are immune from civil and criminal liability pursuant to Code of Virginia § 63.2-1512.

What should I do if my parents abuse or neglect me?

If you are abused or neglected, you should report it to law enforcement personnel or to another trusted adult. Even if someone threatens to harm you if you ever tell about the abuse, you should report it for your own protection and welfare and that of others.

What happens when a report of child abuse or neglect is made?

After a report is made, a Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker will interview the child and his or her brothers and sisters, the parents or caretakers, and the alleged abuser. The CPS social worker may also contact other persons having information about suspected abuse or neglect of the child or children.

The CPS social worker will conduct a child safety assessment, determine if child abuse or neglect occurred or if there is risk or harm, and develop a safety and services plan with the family when indicated.

The primary goal of child protective services is to strengthen and support families in preventing the (re)occurrence of child maltreatment through community-based services.

What happens if a report of child abuse or neglect is found to be true?

The CPS social worker may file a petition with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court to have an abused child or children removed from the home if conditions are unsafe. After evidence is presented, the child or children may be placed temporarily in a foster home until a permanent placement is agreed upon. The child or children may be placed with relatives.

In deciding these cases, the actions of the court are intended to keep children safe, to help families create a safe home for their children, and to ensure that both families and children receive the help they need.

The judge can order the child or children to remain in legal custody of the Department of Social Services and require the family to get help. Over a period of time, if conditions in the home improve, the child or children may be returned to the parents. If conditions do not improve, parental rights may be terminated. If they are terminated, the child becomes available for adoption by relatives or other qualified families.

Who represents the interests of abused or neglected children?

Guardian ad litem (GAL)
The court will appoint an attorney called a guardian ad litem. In fulfilling the duties of a GAL, an attorney will

  • meet face-to-face with and interview the child;

  • conduct an independent investigation in order to ascertain the facts of the case;

  • advise the child, in terms the child can understand, of the nature of all proceedings, the child’s rights, the role and responsibilities of the GAL, the court process, and the possible consequences of the legal action;

  • participate, as appropriate, in pre-trial conferences, mediation, and negotiations;

  • ensure the child’s attendance at all proceedings where the child’s attendance would be appropriate and/or mandated;

  • appear in court on the dates and times scheduled for hearings prepared to fully and vigorously represent the child’s interests;

  • prepare the child to testify, when necessary and appropriate, in accordance with the child’s interest and welfare;

  • provide the court sufficient information, including specific recommendations for court action based on the findings of the interviews and independent investigation;

  • communicate, coordinate, and maintain a professional working relationship to the extent possible with all parties without sacrificing independence;

  • file appropriate petitions, motions, pleadings, briefs, and appeals on behalf of the child and ensure the child is represented by a GAL in any appeal involving the case; and

  • advise the child, in terms the child can understand, of the court’s decision and its consequences for the child and others in the child’s life.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)
In addition, in many courts, a child who is brought to court and is alleged to have been abused or neglected will have a court appointed special advocate (CASA), who is a volunteer. The role of the CASA is to speak up for that child, to provide information to the court about the child’s best interest, and to help the child understand the legal proceedings in which he or she is involved. A CASA may also be assigned to children who are in Need of Services or in Need of Supervision. A CASA works closely with the child’s court-appointed attorney (GAL). The CASA prepares a written report that is sent to the judge hearing the case.

The CASA:

  • gets to know the child by visiting him or her as often as possible (both in and out of the child’s home);

  • researches the child’s background by reviewing records (school, medical, etc.) and by interviewing persons who know the child (doctors, teachers, neighbors, relatives, etc.);

  • assesses what is in the child’s best interest and makes recommendations to the judge regarding placement and services; and

  • monitors court orders to assure the child receives court-ordered services.

Additional Information

About the GAL program
Visit the Virginia Supreme Court website.

About CASA
Visit the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services website.