Mothers: what do they know? And more importantly, what don’t they know?

Cavanaugh and Cauffman recently published a study examining the relationship between rates of reoffending of first-time male juvenile offenders and their mothers’ characteristics. These characteristics included their participation in their sons’ court cases and their legal knowledge.

The sample consisted of over three hundred mother-son pairs. The vast majority of the mothers were the biological parent but in a few cases, they were the biological grandmothers, step or adoptive mothers. (The “type” of mother did not impact the findings.) Nearly half of the mothers were born outside of the United States and were not native English speakers. The boys were from California or Pennsylvania, between the ages of 13-17, spoke English, and were first-time offenders whose “charges were midrange offenses, such as theft, simple assault, and vandalism.”[1] So, if the legal process for an individual case is conceptualized as a road where the arraignment is the start, post disposition is close to the finish line, and case closure is the finish line, these mother-son pairs were close to the finish line.

The researchers explored the mothers’ participation in their sons’ cases. Approximately three quarters of the mothers attended their sons’ court dates and met with their sons’ attorney. Less than a third of the mothers advised their sons how to plead, and sixty percent of them contacted their sons’ probation officers. None of these factors were related to the mothers’ race, arrest history, level of education or income.

The mothers completed a 44-item instrument assessing legal knowledge. In characterizing this aspect of their study, the researchers said, “overall, mothers received an average score of 65.99% out of 100%” on the measure of legal knowledge.”[2] The researchers referred to the mothers’ level of legal knowledge as “troubling.”[3] This finding raises interesting questions beyond the scope of the study, such as, if at the time when they are close to the finish line, their legal knowledge is 66%, the equivalent of a “C” in school, what was their knowledge like at the starting line? Further, what would it take to improve their knowledge to 90% or above, or the equivalent of an “A,” when they were close to the finish line?

The portion of the study that I found most interesting was the items these mothers did not get correct. I have taken the liberty to use the term significant not to denote statistical significance, but to denote an item that at least half of the mothers responded incorrectly. Responses to twelve of the forty-four items were significant. I have divided the significant items into categories: those related to the role of court personnel and the process, those related to probation, those related to their sons making legal decisions and those related to the attorney-client relationship. The charts below were adapted from the article.

Items related to the role of court personnel and the court process.
[1] p. 143
[2] p. 147
[3] p. 149

Item Correct Response Percent Responded Incorrectly
A District Attorney (D.A.) is a lawyer who represents the defendant (the accused person). False 50.94%
Juvenile records are automatically sealed (kept private from the public forever). False 54.86%
A public defender is a lawyer who represents the victim. False 57.10%

It is disconcerting that mothers of sons adjudicated of their first offense did not accurately distinguish between the District Attorney and the Public Defender. More than half of the mothers also did not understand the expungement process. The lack of understanding related to court personnel and the court process is something that many parties in the court system ranging from attorneys, to judges, to probation officers should address more efficaciously.

Items related to probation.

Item Correct Response Percent Responded Incorrectly
If my son violates the terms of his probation, he will automatically be sent to a juvenile detention facility. False 77.26%
The probation officer sets the conditions of my son’s probation. True 72.81%
Conversations I have with my son’s probation officer are confidential (kept private). False 70.81%

The number of mothers who did not understand the probation process is especially problematic given these mothers have sons who are on probation and only about one quarter of them responded correctly to these items. It is clear their sons’ attorneys, as well as the probation officers, should spend more time explaining the probation process to mothers. Additionally, from a clinical perspective, it seems to me this topic should be addressed more than once over the course of probation.

Items related to sons’ legal decisions absent a lawyer.

Item Correct Response Percent Responded Incorrectly
If you and your son disagree about how your son should plead, who gets to make the final decision about how your son will plead? Your son 72.50%
If your son does not have a lawyer, who gets to decide how he will plead? Your son 69.09%

The results in the chart above are not surprising given previous findings describing mothers’ understanding of other aspects their sons’ interactions with the law. For example, Woolard, Cleary, Harvell, and Chen (2008) demonstrated that many mothers mistakenly believe when their child is being interrogated, the Miranda rights are theirs to waive and not their sons’. These findings, as well as those listed in the chart above, highlight just how difficult it is to get parents to understand that basic assumptions of the parent-child relationship do not apply in the legal arena.

Items related to the attorney-client relationship.

Item Correct Response Percent Responded Incorrectly
If you, as the parent, hire a lawyer for your son, who gets to decide how our son will plead? Your son 79.31%
If the court gets your son a lawyer because he cannot afford to pay for one, who gets to decide how our son will plead? Your son 77.60%
If your son hires a lawyer for himself and pays the lawyer himself, who gets to decide how your son will plead? Your son 67.19%
The lawyer assigned to my son’s case works equally for me and
my son.
False 57.94%

Attorneys who represent children often describe the lengths they go to in order to get parents to understand how the child is their client, the types of legal decisions the client has to make, and the limits of the parents’ role. I think it is reasonable to assume the lawyers involved in the cases in this study did this. However, as the chart above indicates, many parents did not understand this lesson. It is alarming that over three quarters of the mothers whose sons had already been adjudicated did not understand that the decision to plead was their sons’. The percentage of mothers who correctly responded that if they hired their son’s attorney, then they got to decide how their son will plead was 20.69%. In response to the same scenario, 35.74% of the mothers indicated, incorrectly, that their son’s lawyer would make the decision. Not surprisingly, 37.81% of the mothers incorrectly believed when their son hired the attorney, the attorney made the decision about how their son would plead. Again, these findings suggest that mothers do not understand, as it pertains to the attorney-client relationship and making legal decisions, that the same rules that apply to them, also apply to their sons. That is, that their sons alone make the legal decisions related to their own cases.

Finally, the researchers looked at the relationship between the mothers’ legal knowledge and aspects of their sons’ cases. As legal knowledge increased, so did the mothers’ participation in the process of their sons’ legal cases. Additionally, the level of the mothers’ legal knowledge was also directly related to their sons’ likelihood of reoffending. The more legal knowledge a mother had, the less likely her son was to reoffend. This study demonstrates many mothers of sons who are court involved do not understand the court and probation process. Since this lack of understanding impacts public safety because it is associated with youths’ increased recidivism, the judiciary, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders should want to increase mothers’ legal knowledge and are advised to gauge their knowledge at different points in the legal process.


Woolard, J. L., Cleary, H. M. D., Harvell, S. A. S., & Chen, R. (2008). Examining adolescents’ and their parents’ conceptual and practical knowledge of police interrogation: A family dyad approach. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 685–698.

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