This is the tag line for an article in yesterday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Where punishment drifts into abuse is the issue in the case of a father who hit his son 36 times.
In this case, the “drifting” occurred because…
When Shawn Fraser’s discipline failed to rein in his 12-year-old son, he turned to his religion…
Fraser use a wooden implement, apparently designed for spanking, to strike his 12 year old child several times. He also posted Bible verses on the refrigerator.
after 36 blows, delivered in 12-blow increments, the 195-pound boy called authorities. Now the state Supreme Court will determine when discipline of a child crosses the line into physical abuse that requires a social worker’s intervention.
The case, which dates to 2005, has been through the courts. First, the county determined that the child required protective intervention. The District Court agreed that both this child and his brother needed protection. On appeal, the State Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, and decided that there was no physical abuse, and that this was not unreasonable force or cruel discipline.
The county appealed to the state Supreme Court where oral arguments are now being heard. The kids are sill in their parents home, and the parents have agreed to stop hitting them.
Here is a summary of the arguments from the Star Tribune article:
The spanking followed an incident in which Fraser said Gerard ran away from home and lied about where he had been. Midway through the spanking, Fraser’s attorney said, the boy grabbed a knife and threatened to kill himself. The father took the knife and continued the paddling. Waite said, “I can’t think of a more severe form of acting out than grabbing a knife and threatening to kill someone.”
Justice Paul Anderson asked, “If a 12-year-old son grabs a knife and threatens suicide, is corporal punishment the appropriate answer?”
Waite said it may be appropriate if the child was being manipulative and trying to get his way. She also argued that no line was crossed because there was no injury to the child.
Justice Alan Page asked Lynch about the evidence of physical injury. Lynch said the incident as a whole created a “substantial risk of injury” and the record shows the discipline was “unreasonable.”
But Page said, “If it was unreasonable, it seems to me you still have to establish physical injury.”
Lynch said the child experienced “harm,” but Page said the law dozen’t talk about “harm.”
Anderson asked Lynch whether the standard for abuse of “unreasonable physical discipline” was an objective one. Lynch said it was.
So, Anderson asked, what was it about the 36 paddles that sent this incident “Beyond the pale?”
Lynch said the third set of 12 was excessive because it was “extremely reactive in nature” and “did not fit with previously defined” discipline in the family.
Page inquired, “Are you suggesting our rule of law accommodate the rule of discipline a particular family has?”
Lynch said the discipline must fit within a family’s scheme.
But Waite noted that the father had spoken with a social worker about corporal punishment before using it and was told he could use physical punishment as long as he left no marks or bruises. The paddling “was not a decision made in haste or anger. This was planned discipline,” Waite said.
Briefly referencing the federal debate about torture, Anderson said he had a hard time concluding that physical injuries must be present for punishment to cross a line.
Lawyer Jill Clark, who represents Natalie Fraser, Gerard’s mother, said the law clearly allows some pain to be inflicted. “When the discipline is excessive, now we’re over the line,” Clark said.
I find it interesting that the religious question, which is in my view central to this case, has not been raised. I would think that a religious belief in a certain form of violence (in this case using a wooden implement to strike a child) is particularly important evidence when trying to estimate future behavior.
I’ll keep you posted on this one.
This is the link to the Strib article, but you may need a subscription to see it.