Is Spanking Child Abuse?
It seems like every parent has a strong opinion about spanking (also called “corporal punishment” in the parenting literature). King Solomon believed that parents who “spare [the] rod” will spoil the child. (Proverbs 13:24.) Other parents believe children should, instead, be reared with a fishing rod. (The Tall Pine Tree: The Life and Work of George H. Brimhall, Raymond & Esther Holbrook, 1988, p. 62.) For our purposes here, I won’t be doing a deep dive into good parenting practices. My focus will be on whether the parental discipline of spanking or, in the alternative, using an object, such as a belt, crosses the line to child abuse, or is “reasonable discipline.”
Physical harm or injury
The court recently held that there was insufficient evidence in that record that the parents had committed abuse when they spanked their children with, e.g., a rhinestone belt, because there was no evidence of physical harm or injury resulting from the discipline. (In re State ex rel. K.T.), 424 P.3d 91 (Utah 2017). In that case, the lower Juvenile Court found that it “cannot envision a scenario where striking or hitting a child, of any age, would be appropriate or reasonable discipline.” The Juvenile Court further found that “[a]s a society we’ve progressed to the point where it’s not acceptable to strike a child and certainly strike a child, of any age, with an object, a belt, a strap, or a paddle or anything of that nature.” The appellate court disagreed, reasoning that a “per se” or automatic rule that says that, e.g., spanking a child with a belt is in and of itself abuse without any evidence of physical injury is overbroad. Nevertheless, the Court cautioned parents that in that case the State “would not have needed to forward much additional evidence” to allow the court to infer harm, such as evidence of the effects of the spanking (e.g., injury), evidence of how hard the parent used the belt, etc.
Any physical harm or injury, not just serious physical injury, resulting from spanking will constitute child abuse, even when the parent has tried every disciplinary method in their repertoire, the child has been warned, the parent is in control and not angry when they spank, e.g., a 4-year old boy’s bottom with an open hand three times, and the injury does not require medical attention. Bountiful City v. Baize, 438 P.3d 1041(Utah App. 2019). In that case, there was evidence of a yellowish bruise in the shape of finger or handprint on the child’s bottom.
Reasonable discipline defense
Whether discipline is “reasonable is a fact-dependent analysis that must take into account the various circumstances of the particular case.” K.Y. v. DCFS, 244 P.3d 399 (Utah App. 2010). The court has listed various factors that may indicate whether discipline was “reasonable,” which may include, but are not limited to: (1) whether the person spanking the child was a parent or guardian; (2) evidence of any bruising, contusions, or abrasions on the child; (3) the extent of injury inflicted; (4) evidence of unreasonably cruel punishment such as beatings with a belt, paddle, hose or other object; (5) the need for spanking; (6) the relationship between the need for spanking and the amount of spanking administered; (7) whether the spanking was administered in a good faith effort to maintain discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm; (8) evidence of verbal threats or verbal abuse; (9) whether the incident was isolated or rather a step in an apparent progression of mistreatment. State ex rel. L.P., 981 P.2d 848 (Utah App. 1999). None of the guiding factors listed is necessarily enough on its own to establish a child was abused.
In a divorce setting, when the issue of spanking is raised, family courts usually issue an order that parents not use corporal punishment. And while the courts can find that spanking, even with a belt, is reasonable discipline if there’s no evidence of physical injury or harm, best practice to avoid legal entanglement is to avoid spanking, particularly with a, e.g., belt.