Corporal Punishment vs. Child Abuse: A Thin Line

Can your child be taken away because of a simple spanking? When I was elementary school at a public institution in Rankin County, Mississippi, I had the misfortune of enduring the school principal’s penchant for enforcing rules by use of a very large paddle, equipped with golf-ball sized holes in order to increase the velocity of each collision. In the early 1990’s, it was standard fare to expect a good old-fashioned whipping from school administration for playground roughhousing or any other number of youthful misdeeds. Boy, how times have changed.

In today’s world of political correctness and fear of legal liability, it seems that those days are long gone, and will likely never return. Parents have often asked our office whether or not a Youth Court or Chancery Court has the authority to take their children from their physical custody wherein there has been significant corporal punishment. Gone are the days of schools bruising the rear-end of a miscreant child (usually boys, alas).

Desoto County, Mississippi recently dealt with an appeal revolving around the question of distinguishing between reasonable discipline versus child abuse, and the line is very thin and broadly within the discretion of the trial court in civil matters. In this particular instance, the appellate court had to consider the sufficiency of evidence utilized by the trial court in removing four children from their father’s custody. At hand was a simple query, at least at first glance.

The appellate court first, and a matter of proper judicial due course, considered the bare language of the applicable Mississippi statute, section 43-21-105(m). In pertinent part, said statute provides that an abused child is one “whose parent….has caused or allowed to be caused, upon the child… emotional abuse, mental injury, non-accidental physical injury or other maltreatment”. Wow, talk about a broad definition, allowing wide discretion for the judge. However, the statute on point also states that “physical discipline, including spanking, performed on a child by a parent, guardian or custodian in a reasonable manner shall not be deemed abuse under this section”. Thanks for the semi-clarification, right?

It seems to me that the question of whether or not corporal punish ment of a child is violative of Mississippi law comes down to good old-fashioned common sense. While the criminal statutes regarding abuse of minors are relatively easy to interpret, the civil law remains open to broad interpretation. It is my hunch that any physical punishment that is accompanied by bruising or other visible signature will likely run afoul of the statute on point, but the margin for interpretation is razor-thin. Foremost, always remember that the court will have wide leeway in drawing the line between abuse and reasonable corporal punishment. No two judges are the same and may see the same thing differently. Reasonable minds may, and will often, disagree.

If you are dealing with allegations of abuse or neglect and need guidance and effective legal counsel, we will gladly be of assistance. Always trust your better judgment and recognize that any child punishment of a child must not be done out of anger. In the words of the American author and Unitarian minister Robert Fulgham, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. Well said.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi family lawyer focused on case evaluation and domestic conflict management. He was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in July, 2004.

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