Laws against Spanking

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 Are There Legal Consequences for Spanking Your Child?

Physical or corporal punishment by a parent or other legal guardian, including a teacher is any act causing deliberate physical pain or discomfort to a child as punishment for some undesired behavior or the display of “attitude.” It can take many forms:

  • Spanking, smacking or slapping the child with an open hand
  • Striking the child with an implement such as a stick, shoe, wooden spoon, belt, slipper, cane, hairbrush, paddle, whip, or hanger
  • Shaking the child
  • Pinching the child
  • Forced ingestion of substances (such as soap in the mouth or forcing them to swallow hot spices)
  • Forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions
  • Kicking the child
  • Throwing the child
  • Biting the child
  • Pulling hair
  • Burning or scalding the child

Corporal punishment is most frequent for toddler-age children and continues into children’s adolescence. Researchers estimate that parents have physically punished 85% of American youth during childhood or adolescence. The most common form of physical punishment is spanking on the buttocks with an open hand on the buttocks. However, more than one in four parents have also reported using an object, such as a hairbrush or wooden spoon, to hit their children.

Public support for parents’ right to spank remains high in the U.S. despite a growing body of evidence linking corporal punishment by parents with numerous adverse effects, such as aggression, antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression in children. Despite opposition from medical and social services professionals, as of 2023, the spanking of children is legal in all 50 states.

Spanking your children was routine decades ago, but it is far more controversial today. Today, more people view spanking as an unacceptable punishment that parents should avoid.

When is Spanking a Child Considered to be Abuse?

While spanking a child is not considered a separate and distinct crime, it can be considered child abuse in certain situations. Child abuse laws make physical attacks against children or actions that harm a child criminal. Both minor injuries, such as bruises, and serious injuries, such as burns or broken bones, are abusive if the adult intends to inflict them on a child. Even if the adult does not intend to cause the injury or causes no injury at all, intentionally assaulting a child is criminal.

Whether a parent will suffer legal consequences for spanking their child will depend on their state’s laws and the force used to punish the child. Most state child abuse laws allow for mild physical force for discipline. However, the discipline cannot cause severe pain or injury to the child, and the punishment must be intended by the parent or guardian to be in the child’s best interest.

Mild spanking is generally legal in most states and is not considered against the child’s best interest. This refers to spanking with a moderate, open-handed blow on the part of the body which is not particularly sensitive or prone to injury.

To determine if the spanking has crossed the line into child abuse, a court may evaluate some of the following factors:

  • The age of the child
  • The mental capacity of the child. Children who have mental defects such that they are unlikely to be “rehabilitated” by the spanking are more commonly seen to be victims of abuse
  • Level of force used by the parent – how hard was the spanking
  • Whether the spanking was done with an open hand. Hitting with a belt, paddle, hairbrush, stick, or object other than a hand is more likely to be considered abusive
  • Reason for the spanking. Was it to teach the child some kind of lesson, or was it administered out of anger?
  • Where the child was spanked on their body, was it a particularly tender or delicate area? Because of the danger of a brain injury, hitting on the head (especially with an object other than a hand) is more likely to be considered abusive.
  • Condition of the child before and after the spanking – what did the spanking do to the child
  • Whether the child required medical treatment as a result of the spanking
  • How frequently the parent or guardian uses spanking as a punishment

Situations involving the use of a paddle, closed fist, or other object. Many judges will likely determine that this level of force is unnecessary and exceeds the bar for acceptable punishment. Other situations where spanking is commonly determined to be excessive and unnecessary are when the child has serious mental deficiencies or needs medical attention from the spanking.

Spanking may be reported by a teacher, school counselor, therapist, or medical professional who learns of the spanking. These individuals are mandatory reporters who must report confirmed or suspected instances of child abuse. Spanking is a delicate subject, and whether the act is considered abuse is unclear. After spanking is reported, whether it rises to the level of child abuse and warrants some type of punishment will ultimately be up to the court.

What Happens When Someone is Accused of Child Abuse for Spanking Their Child?

If you are accused of child abuse for spanking your child, serious legal consequences may result. The outcome will be dependent on the facts of your particular situation and your state’s particular child abuse laws.

The issue will initially go before a family court judge, who will determine what to do based on the following standard: what is in the child’s best interests. In a situation involving a custody battle, spanking a child can have a bearing on the ultimate decision of who gets custody. The other parent could use an instance of spanking to argue that you are unfit to receive sole or partial custody. Punishments in family law court could include:

You could also be charged in criminal court with a felony or misdemeanor crime if the spanking punishment was severe and rises to the level of child abuse. Some potential criminal legal consequences include:

  • Jail time of up to a year for a misdemeanor (a misdemeanor is a crime that cannot be punished by more than one year of jail time)
  • Prison time for more than a year if the incident, or pattern of incidents, was a felony (a felony is a crime that is punishable by at least one year in jail)
  • In addition to, or instead of, incarceration, fines may be ordered. The amount will depend on your state or county laws.

Should I Contact an Attorney If I am Facing Charges for Spanking My Child?

If you have been accused of child abuse, it is highly recommended that you contact a local child abuse attorney to explore your options and protect your rights. An attorney can review your state’s laws and prior decisions to help you determine if your behavior is considered abuse.

An attorney can also fight for you in court to protect your custody rights. If the court feels that punishment is proper, an attorney can work with the court to get a less severe punishment and avoid losing all or some of your parental rights.

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