When Does Spanking Become a Crime?


“You can’t spank me, that’s abuse!” was the response of a Florida man’s 12-year-old daughter shortly after he grabbed the paddle (I’m taking some creative license with her quote, but I don’t think I’m far off). So this dad did what was, apparently, a relatively common thing in Florida: he called the police to come supervise the paddling, which ultimately passed their inspection. The incident that occurred on December, 29, 2014, has received an unusual amount of media attention. Perhaps it’s the unwelcome notion of government intervention in parental affairs, or the outrage that so many kids think consequences don’t apply to them. When it comes to spanking, it’s probably time to establish what constitutes a child thinking twice in their bedroom versus a parent thinking twice behind bars.


The legal wording on what is allowed in our country regarding domestic corporal punishment is done on a state-by-state basis, and the descriptions can be as verbose as several paragraphs to as vague as one sentence. Thirty states contain the phrase “reasonable and appropriate” in their laws when referring to the severity of the discipline. Twelve states prohibit “physical harm,” four prohibit “reckless injury,” three prohibit “excessive or serious injury,” and just one state, Delaware, outlaws all forms of corporal punishment (this legislation was passed in 2012). Whether it’s a red state or a blue state, the legislation is basically the same (with the exception of Delaware). The only concrete definitions address whether or not corporal punishment is allowed in schools, for which our country is split roughly 50-50.


Government intervention in child abuse is a relatively new concept. It wasn’t until 1974 that Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Legislation such as this seems to have made at least some impact. In 1986 spanking was an acceptable form of discipline in 84% of households, but that has recently dipped down to 70%. These statistics vary based on several factors. Born-again Christians spank about 15% more often than non-born-again Christians; African-Americans spank about 10% more often than whites, and 5% more than Hispanics; Republicans spank more than Democrats; the South and Midwest spank more than the Northeast and West Coast. These statistics are relatively predictable, but determining the legal difference between “abuse” and “discipline” often requires some perspective.


It’s one thing to put a law in the books, it’s quite another to enforce it. The laws allow for some level of interpretation which, counterintuitive to what many might think, is not intended to correspond to the “reason” for the punishment. Most of these cases have extenuating circumstances that are typically considered.


In November of 2014, Anthony West was arrested for spanking his son with a belt (a legal implement for discipline in Florida) after the boy shot his 11-year-old sister in the head with a BB gun. Some might argue that the spanking was warranted in this case. In early 2013, Amber Tyler was arrested for spanking her 7-year-old son with a belt after he was suspended for bringing a box cutter to school; again, this child was undoubtedly deserving of a harsh lesson. But several years ago Tiv Johnson was arrested for spanking his 2-year-old son in a mall parking lot because his child was “acting out.” A witness notified police and phoned in the complaint, but the charges were eventually dismissed after an investigation took place. Johnson followed up this incident by suing the city for harassment that he claims was a result of him being black. He was awarded $30,000.

What differentiates these three cases? Two of them resulted in jail time for undeniably bad behavior on the part of the child, while one resulted in a dismissal when the child was just acting out. It certainly didn’t hurt that Johnson was a doctor and could probably afford a decent attorney. But while West and Tyler had good reasons to discipline their kids, the final straw, according to the arresting officers, was the fact that these children managed to get their hands on potentially lethal weapons without the knowledge of their parents (e.g., negligence).



Let’s be real: as long as you don’t leave dramatically noticeable marks on your kids you can probably get away with just about anything. The laws are essentially unenforceable unless witnesses intervene, which is generally the reason behind many of these arrests. But only about a quarter of the reported physical abuse cases come from a medical facility; the rest come from strangers and family members. And just over half of Child Protective Services investigations actually result in a confirmed case of abuse.

What our Justice Department seems to be primarily concerned about is the big picture. If there are reasons for CPS to be apprehensive about the safety of a child “in addition to” evidence of physical abuse (i.e. evidence of drug use, neglect, unsanitary living conditions, sexual abuse), that’s when people typically lose custody of their kids. But keep this in mind: in most of these cases the “safest” option for the cops is to make an arrest and let a jury determine whether or not that fine line of abuse was crossed.


Image illustrations via Shutterstock / /  



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