Several years ago, there were multiple media reports about a well-known NFL player who was accused of abusing his young son by disciplining him with a tree branch. The man claimed he never intended to abuse or harm his son and was only disciplining him, in the same manner, his parents disciplined him when he was a child. But prosecutors claim that by using a tree branch and hitting his son multiple times, the player’s actions went beyond mere discipline and were abusive. Who is right?
State Law on Child Discipline
Every state in the United States permit parents or those acting “in loco parentis” (like grandparents, legal guardians, etc.) to discipline a child through corporal punishment. In some states, the criminal statutes state that the use of force against a child is justified when the parent reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard their welfare. The key phrase, however, is the reasonable believes part of these laws.
In these cases, it is not enough that a person accused of child abuse for disciplining his or her child believed that the force used was necessary for disciplining the child. Additionally, that belief must be found to be “reasonable” by a judge or jury. This subjects the accused’s actions to the judgment of current society and culture – it is not a defense that the accused was only disciplining his or her child in the same way he or she was disciplined. In other words, a judge or jury who does not find the accused’s beliefs “reasonable” will find the accused guilty of child abuse.
A Blurry Line
Unfortunately, there is very little else to assist a judge or jury in determining whether an accused’s belief is reasonable. The judge or jury will need to consider the facts and circumstances of the particular case in determining whether child abuse has occurred. Pertinent facts and circumstances include:
- Age of the child
- Whether the discipline was inflicted with a bare hand or with some other instrument (rope, belt, yardstick or ruler, tree branch, etc.)
- How many strikes were inflicted on the child
- The alleged disciplinary problem the accused was attempting to correct (for instance, roughly grabbing a toddler before she runs out into a busy street may be acceptable and reasonably whereas whipping that same child multiple times for not picking up her toys may not be seen as reasonable)
- If the discipline left the child with cuts, bruises, or other marks, or if the child needed medical attention following the discipline
Seek Experienced Help from a Criminal Defense Lawyer
When you have been accused of child abuse after disciplining your child, you need experienced and aggressive legal representation. Just because you discipline your children in the same way you were disciplined as a child does not mean a judge or jury cannot find you guilty of abuse. You need a zealous criminal defense attorney to present all the relevant facts to the judge or jury.