When Does Corporal Punishment Cross the Line?

by Claire Terrebonne, CASA Staff Attorney/Guardian ad LitemClaire3

Leave it to the NFL to bring issues that we in the child welfare field deal with daily to the mainstream media—domestic violence (surely a topic of future blog posts), violence in general, drug use, and . . . the great spanking debate.  Since super-star Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson was indicted in September on child abuse charges for allegedly whipping his 4 year-old son with a switch, corporal punishment has been a recent hot topic of conversation.

Corporal punishment in general is a disciplinary approach involving the application of physical pain or discomfort in response to undesirable behavior.  It ranges from slapping a hand or bottom to whipping with a belt or paddle, to perhaps even forced exercise.  One interesting aspect of the corporal punishment debate is the disparity between its social and legal acceptance and the criticism and disapproval from some in the pediatric medical community and other child welfare professionals.

Because of serious concerns regarding the negative effects of corporal punishment, its limited effectiveness, and its potential to escalate into abuse, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes the position that certain forms of physical discipline should never be used, e.g. striking a child with an object or on parts of the body other than the buttocks, shaking or jerking a child, or delivering physical discipline in anger.  For the same reasons, the AAP also recommends that parents be assisted and encouraged to use disciplinary methods other than spanking.  Critics of corporal punishment (including the AAP and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry) cite studies suggesting that spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in preschool and school children and higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse, and increased risk of violence and crime when used with older children and adolescents.  Corporal punishment, absent more severe child maltreatment, has even been associated with mood, anxiety, and personality disorders.

Despite these concerns, surveys over the past decade indicate that anywhere from 65 up to 90 percent of families report at least spanking their children at some point. The legal framework in the United States appears to be consistent with this social approval of physical discipline.  Most states, by statute or common law, expressly permit “reasonable” corporal punishment by parents, other caregivers, and even schools.  No state has expressly outlawed it (although, interestingly, it’s been abolished in over 30 countries).  Missouri law expressly excludes “discipline including spanking, administered in a reasonable manner” from the definition of child abuse.  See RsMO §§ 210.110(1); 568.060.1(1), .9.  (Note, however, that the use of corporal punishment again foster children is prohibited. 13 CSR 35-60.030, .050.) Similarly, in Texas, where charges of injury to a child are pending against Adrian Peterson, the use of force by a parent or caregiver against a child is justified when that caregiver “reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.” Tex. Penal Code § 9.61; see also Tex. Family Code § 151.001(a), (e) (allowing a parent and certain caregivers to use corporal punishment for the reasonable discipline of a child).

So what is “reasonable” physical discipline?  Or, asked another way, when is corporal punishment unreasonable and when does it become abuse?  In Missouri, physical discipline crosses the line to abuse where there is resulting harm to the child.  In re M.N.J., 291 S.W.2d 306, 312 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009) (“Spanking with a belt is not physical abuse when done in a reasonable manner and does not result in harm to the child.”)  The clearest indicator of “harm” is physical injury, e.g., bruises, lacerations, abrasions, welts, choke marks, burns, bites, and fractures.  Without some physical manifestation of harm, abuse resulting from physical discipline may be hard to prove.  For example, a child’s expressed fear of her parents may be insufficient evidence of “harm” or unreasonable discipline.  See id. at 312-314 (reversing and remanding a finding of physical abuse where, despite an admission of disciplining the child with a belt, an observation of a red mark on the child’s bottom, and the child’s expressed fear of returning to the parents’ care, there was no testimony that the child suffered from bruising as a result of the belt or that the spankings were administered unreasonably).  Determining the “reasonableness” of the discipline is an ever more ambiguous analysis.  Was the physical discipline exercised in anger?  Was it proportionate to the severity of the behavior to be corrected?  The answers to these and related questions will guide the “reasonableness” analysis.

In November, Adrian Peterson pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault allowing him to avoid a criminal trial.  He received two years of deferred adjudication, a form of probation. He was fined $4,000 and must complete parenting classes and perform 80 hours of community service.  If he completes his probation without incident, the misdemeanor charge will be removed from his record.

Whether one agrees with the plea agreement or not, this case has certainly brought needed attention to the issue of corporal punishment and child abuse.  At the very least this case will give parents reason to reflect on their own disciplinary methods, whatever their preferences and beliefs may be.

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