The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today heard oral arguments regarding the extent to which a parent has the right to physically discipline his or her child.
In 2011, Brockton police officers heard a man yelling at a child near a bus stop. The officers began to investigate and witnessed the man kick his two-year-old daughter in the buttocks and slap her once on the buttocks with his hand. The man was arrested and charged with, among other things, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (for the kick) and assault and battery (for the slap). The defendant’s story was that his daughter was playing too close to the road, so he told her to stand with her mother (who was also at the scene). The daughter refused and was being disrespectful, so the defendant spanked her once with his hand. The defendant waived his right to a jury and had a trial before a judge. The judge found the defendant guilty of assault and battery but not guilty of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The Appeals Court affirmed his conviction for assault and battery and the defendant appealed to the SJC.
This case will require the Supreme Judicial Court to consider whether, and to what extent, a parent has the right to use corporal punishment in disciplining his or her child. There is a surprising lack of Massachusetts caselaw related to the issue. In 2005, the Massachusetts Appeals Court concluded that a parent may use reasonable force to discipline his or her minor child but may not use excessive force as a means of discipline. Of course, the question becomes what constitutes “reasonableness” in physically disciplining a child. In 1999, in a case called Cobble v. Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, the Supreme Judicial Court considered whether a father’s beating of his son with a belt constituted abuse as defined in the regulations of the Department of Social Services. In that case, the father whipped his nine-year-old son with a leather belt up to five times over his fully clothed buttocks. The Court characterized the beating as “nonviolent and controlled” and said it left slightly pink marks with no bruising. The SJC concluded that such a whipping did not constitute abuse.
The defendant in the present case argued that a single spank over a clothed child’s buttocks could not be viewed as excessive. The Commonwealth countered that it was appropriate for the judge to find the defendant guilty given that he was angry and upset when he spanked his daughter. Moreover, it’s questionable whether a two-year-old has the capacity to understand the discipline being administered and therefore the judge could have concluded that spanking a two-year-old child is never appropriate.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services, which is the public defender organization in Massachusetts, urged the SJC to formally recognize a parent’s right to use reasonable force to physically discipline a child. The Committee’s brief said that 42 states have recognized such a right (either through legislation or caselaw), and no states have outlawed the practice.
The Court took the matter under advisement and will issue a written decision in several months.