Child Abuse or Corporal Punishment?

March 16, 2011

“It is apparent that there is a serious risk of ‘going too far’ every time physical punishment is administered.” Herbert v. State, 526 So. 2d 709, 712 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988).

During my time as a prosecutor, I investigated countless cases of child abuse. One of the more difficult decisions I had to make was whether to charge a parent or guardian with child abuse, a felony in Florida; or was it a case of corporal punishment? Incidents involving a parent or guardian causing injuries such as welts and bruises to their child often times pose difficult filing decisions to prosecutors and ultimately a court reviewing the case down the road. Is this parent or guardian a criminal? Or are they just trying to discipline their child? Now as a criminal defense attorney, I deal with the same issues, just on the other side of the fence.

So what’s the answer? The long and the short of it is that there is no clear cut answer. Each case is evaluated on its individual facts. However, in reviewing the appellate cases in Florida they seem to give some guidance in determining whether a case is child abuse or simply corporal punishment. But there is still grey area. A parent or one standing in loco parentis has no absolute immunity from a charge of child abuse. However, the parent or guardian may assert as an affirmative defense that they used “reasonable” or “nonexcessive” corporal punishment such as a typical spanking. In general courts and prosecutors are going to look at two things: whether the actions on the part of the accused were reasonable; and whether the injuries suffered were excessive or just welts and bruises not requiring medical attention.

Appellate cases which found that there was not felony child abuse as a matter of law include: King v. State, 903 So.2d 954 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005), where the Court held that a school administrator, who had written permission from the parents to paddle a child and he did so causing welts, was not guilty of felony child abuse as a matter of law. However, the Court held that the administrator’s actions may constitute Contributing to the Dependency of a Child, a misdemeanor; and State v. Figarola, 788 So.2d 1109 (Fla.3d DCA 2011), where the Court held that a father striking his son in the face two times causing the son’s lip to split, and forcing the son to eat as punishment for his failure to eat dinner was not felony child abuse as a matter of law.

However, appellate cases where the Court held that the actions of the parents or guardian were unreasonable include: Julius v. State, 953 So.2d 33 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007), where a mother was accused of beating her two children with a wooden leg of a table which had a metal screw at the top because she was late for work and the children couldn’t find her shoe. She appealed her conviction of the count involving her younger daughter who “only” had “significant bruises or welts.” The Court upheld the conviction because “there was no evidence that the beatings were a legitimate form of discipline to punish some specific misbehavior; Czapla v. State, 957 So.2d 676 (Fla. 1st DCA 2007), where the Court upheld a child abuse conviction when the defendant punched his son in the head, pushed him into a room, and kicked him while he was on the floor because his son failed to do yard work. The Court held that this was not reasonable corporal punishment; and recently in the case of Chisolm v. State, 36 Fla. L. Weekly D (Fla. 1st DCA 2011) the Court upheld a conviction of child abuse where the father whipped his son with a belt containing some type of metal circles or studs causing bruising and welts on the entire surface of the child’s back and arms. The Court ruled that “this type of conduct cannot be likened to a typical spanking or other form of corporal punishment.”

The above cases deal with the common question of whether a case is child abuse or corporal punishment. The question becomes that much easier for the Court’s and prosecutors when the injuries are more severe than bruises or welts. Based on experience, if any of the same cases addressed above resulted in injuries such as fractured bones or some other excessive or permanent injury; it is highly likely that a prosecutor will file the case and an appellate court will uphold the conviction.

Conclusion

As a criminal defense attorney, I am more likely going to be successful arguing on behalf of a client that was using reasonable corporal punishment to disciple a specific misbehavior. What is reasonable in the eyes of a prosecutor and the Court will be decided on a case-by-case basis. I invite your comments on this issue.

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