Child Discipline or Child Abuse?

While many norms differ from culture to culture, it’s fair to say that nearly every society opposes the use of unnecessary violence against children, typically regarded as the most vulnerable and helpless members of society.
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However, as our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers know from experience, the definitions of child abuse become blurred when one considers the role of physical punishments in the process of disciplining a child. What rights does a parent have in choosing how to teach their children how to behave? When does an instructive decision made by a parent become a criminal act?

A recent criminal case involving a man who slapped his 8-year-old son underscores the complexities of this issue. Although the man claimed all along that he was disciplining his child for cursing, social service workers and a family court initially decided that the physical punishments to which he subjected his son constituted child neglect.

In late 2012, a New York man reprimanded his then-8-year-old son after his son cursed at an adult at a party. Apparently disappointed with his son’s disrespectful behavior, the fathor found it fitting to slap his son as punishment. Just as punitive damages in civil cases serve to “teach a lesson” so that the defendant(s) think twice about engaging in reckless and/or illegitimate behavior in the future, many parents think that slapping a child for misbehaving decreases the likelihood that they will act out in the future.

Whether or not you personally believe that slapping a child is ethical or even effective is not really at issue here. Just as other parents don’t have the right to come into your home and tell you how to teach your child to read, we as a society should not be able to micromanage the parenting styles of other parents, unless of course their parenting style qualifies as abuse under the law.

According to the law in Florida, for example, child abuse occurs when an individual intentionally inflicts phsyical or mental injury on a child or engages in behavior that could reasonably be expected to result in phsyical or mental injury to a child. A slap on the hand or the rear-end by a parent is unlikely to result in physical or mental injury to a degree that would qualify as a violation of child abuse laws. On the other hand, if a stranger were to slap a child, that would amost assuredly qualify as some form of child abuse or aggravated child abuse, depending on the circumstnaces. But parents are afforded more leniency given that their actions are motivated by a desire to instill lessons in their children.

The appelate court in New York ruled, in the case discussed above, that slapping ones child is an example of a reasonable use of force. The father was also accused of taking a belt to his son, which he denied. Had the government been able to find evidence that the father did indeed use a belt to discipline his son, they might have had a case against him. But, given the father’s denial of the use of the belt coupled with the lack of evidence of belt usage for disciplinary purposes, the charges of child abuse and neglect were dismissed.

Our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers know that parenting styles vary from family to family and that what might be appropriate to one family might be entirely inappropriate to another. If you have been arrested for or charged with a crime such as child neglect or child abuse in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade County, and you believe that you are being punished for simply disciplining your child, please contact us. To schedule a free, legal, private consultation with our lawyers at Leifert & Leifert, please give us a call at 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363).

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