Can a Child Be Made to Testify Against a Parent?

In a recent episode of That 70’s Show, a man (Red) was involved in some legal trouble and was giving his testimony. Red’s son (Eric), a young man of about 17-18, was being made to testify against his dad. Two points: Eric was not the victim of Red’s alleged crime, and the whole matter in the show was presented as meeting with an arbitrator rather than an actual criminal/civil trial.

But no matter. In a case where the child is not the victim of the parent’s crime, can a child be compelled to testify against a parent? Would it matter if the child was an adult vs. a teenager vs. a child?

It depends on the state, but in most cases there is no privilege in parent-child communications. Cite.


I only know this because it became a huge deal during the Lewinsky scandal. The persecutors (not a typo!) were trying to force Monica Lewinsky’s mother to testify against her own daughter. As I recall the judge ruled that Mrs. L had to testify, as there was no legal privilege. The news coverage at the time said that the issue of parent/child communication has come up only very rarely in court, so there was less reason to develop a privilege rule than for spousal communication.

There is no privilege for parent-child communications in Ohio, but most prosecutors will be mindful of the damage that will likely be caused to the family if a child is forced to testify. I have never heard, in 20 years of practice, of a child actually being forced to do so, but I’m sure it has happened somewhere (esp., I suppose, in child abuse cases).

According to a standard legal adage, “Bad cases make bad law”.

Without getting into a Great Debate about it at this late date, I think most would agree that the Lewinsky case was Profoundly Atypical, to say the least. I would shudder to think of what judges’ rulings in that case could be considered to be any kind of binding precedent.

I could be wrong, but I don’t believe a parent-child privilege exists in ANY state. If anything privilege is drifting away from the old family/religious distinctions and moving towards newer “self-help group” ones (privilege from fellow AA members testifying is one I hear advocated a lot).