Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules Stepmother Has Right to Physically Discipline Stepchild

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday that a woman charged with beating her stepdaughter was entitled to use reasonable force to discipline her.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Packer.

A district court jury convicted the defendant of committing an assault and battery against her stepdaughter.  They lived in the same house along with the victim’s father (the defendant’s husband) and the victim’s half-sister.  The defendant and the victim had a difficult relationship that sometimes resulted in fights.  On March 30, 2011, the victim went into the kitchen to eat breakfast before school.  The defendant confronted her about some cheese that had gone missing from the refrigerator.  The victim first denied touching the cheese, but then admitted that she had eaten it.  According to the victim, the defendant hit her in the ear, causing it to bleed.  The defendant then threw the victim’s cell phone across the room and chased the victim to her bedroom, where she pulled the victim’s hair.

After the alleged assaults against the victim, the defendant summonsed the victim’s father to intercede.  The father entered the victim’s bedroom and, according to the victim, twice pretended to punch her in the face before actually doing so.  The daughter went to school and told her guidance counselor that she had been beaten by her father and the defendant.  The counselor observed injuries that corroborated the victim’s story.  The defendant and the victim’s father were both charged with assault and battery.

The Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that parents have the right to use reasonable corporal punishment to discipline their children.  The defendant and the father each asked the trial judge to instruct the jury that parental discipline is a valid defense in Massachusetts.  The judge agreed to give the requested instruction for the father but ruled that the defendant was not entitled to such an instruction because she is not the victim’s legal parent.  The jury found the father not guilty but convicted the defendant, leading to her appeal.

Massachusetts has recognized the legal principle “in loco parentis” which essentially means that in some situations, a child’s caretaker is acting on behalf of the parent and has similar privileges (and, in the context of this case, would be permitted to use corporal punishment against a child).  The defendant argued that stepparents should always be considered to be acting in loco parentis with respect to their spouses’ children.  The Appeals Court rejected that argument, as a stepparent does not necessarily have an active parenting role (or even a close relationship) with a stepchild.  However, in this case, the defendant and the victim lived together full time in the same house.  The defendant had been active in the victim’s home for at least eight years.  The victim referred to the defendant as her “mother.”  Given these facts, the jury could have concluded the defendant acted in loco parentis.  Therefore, the trial judge in this case committed legal error by refusing to instruct the jury on the parental discipline defense with respect to the defendant.

The defendant’s conviction was reversed and the case was remanded to the district court for a new trial.  While the defendant will be entitled to a parental discipline jury instruction, there will still be the question of whether the force she used against the victim was reasonable.  If she used unreasonable or excessive force, she will not be protected by the parental discipline defense.