Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Assault Conviction Against Dorchester Mother Who Says Beating her Son Constituted “Discipline”

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a Dorchester woman’s conviction for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in a case that involved her hitting her five-year-old son in the face with a belt.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dobson

In May of 2014, a Boston police officer was dispatched to School Street to investigate the report of an assault.  The cop encountered the child victim and his father.  The victim had a red mark on his face and another four-inch-long red mark on his leg.  After interviewing the victim’s father, the cop spoke to the mother (soon to become the defendant).  The defendant said she had hit her son with a belt in an effort to discipline him.  She was allegedly aiming for the child’s butt, and she unintentionally hit him in the face.  The so-called discipline was the result of the victim’s misbehavior in his kindergarten class.  The defendant was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (ABDW).

This is one of the first cases to test the Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision that parents have the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children in some circumstances.  In order to be lawful, the SJC said such physical punishments must: (1) involve a reasonable amount of force; (2) be reasonably related to promoting the welfare of the child; and (3) not cause or create a substantial risk of causing severe mental distress, gross degradation, or physical harm (other than minor, transient marks or fleeting pain).  The defendant decided to waive her right to a jury trial and a district court judge convicted her of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.  The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed.

The Court said it would have been reasonable for the trial judge to conclude that the defendant intentionally hit the child in the face (thereby not believing the defendant’s story that the strike to the face had been unintentional).  On these facts, continued the Appeals Court, it was appropriate for the trial judge to have convicted the defendant of ABDW.  After all, the belt could have caused serious injures to the child’s eyes or some other part of his face.  In considering the reasonableness of hitting a child in the face with the belt, the trial judge could have considered the child’s age, his alleged offense that led to the discipline, and the physical and mental condition of the child.  It was proper for the trial judge to have found that the physical punishment in this case involved an unreasonable amount of force and created a substantial risk of causing significant physical harm.  The Court also pointed out that when the SJC ruled parents may use corporal punishment against their children, the justices were considering a case where the defendant slapped a child with his hand.  This case is obviously different, in that the defendant used what could be characterized as a weapon.

Despite the SJC’s tepid endorsement of corporal punishment, parents who decide to beat their children as “discipline” run the very real risk of arrest and prosecution.  There is a large segment of the population that believes physical punishment of any kind is inappropriate.  If there is an alternative punishment, parents would be smart to avoid beating their children.