Is It a Crime to Discipline Your Child?

The trend in child discipline currently is to avoid physical forms of punishment and instead use “time outs” or other methods of discipline. There have been numerous cases in the news discussing the impact that physical punishment can have on the child and the community. Examples include the Devery Broox case where a 25 year old mentor was accused of being too severe in his methods of punishing a 7 year old boy.

Another example includes a public school in Georgia allowing a 6 year old to be handcuffed for inappropriate behavior. Florida and Georgia have similar laws pertaining to child discipline. This trend in society is reflected in several laws. As such, it is worthwhile to examine whether the use of physical force to punish a child, as is common in many cultures, might be considered a crime.

Florida has extensive Child Abuse Laws to rightfully protect children. Although the laws recognize corporal discipline, there are many cases where the courts have found parental discipline to be excessive and the parents have been convicted of Aggravated Child Abuse. Aggravated child abuse is a third degree felony punishable by a maximum sentence of five years prison and up to $5,000.00 fine.

Child Abuse is defined by Florida Statutes as (a) an intentional infliction of physical or mental injury upon a child; (b) an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child; and/or (c) active encouragement of any person to commit an act that results or could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child. Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or guardian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child as defined in Florida Statute 39.01.

Harm to a child is when any person inflicts, or allows to be inflicted upon a child, physical, mental, or emotional injury. In determining whether harm has occurred, the following factors must be considered in evaluating any physical, mental, or emotional injury to the child: the age of the child; any prior history of injuries to the child; the location of the injury on the body of the child; multiplicity of the injury; and the type of trauma inflicted. Corporal discipline may be considered excessive or abusive when it results in any of the following or similar injuries:

  • Sprains, dislocations, or cartilage damage.
  • Bone or skull fractures.
  • Brain or spinal cord damage.
  • Intracranial hemorrhage or injury to other internal organs.
  • Asphyxiation, suffocation, or drowning.
  • Injury resulting from the use of a deadly weapon.
  • Burns or scalding.
  • Cuts, lacerations, punctures or bites.
  • Permanent or temporary disfigurement.
  • Permanent or temporary loss or impairment of a body part or function.
  • Significant bruises or welts.

Ultimately, whether punishment is appropriate or criminal will be up to a police officer, a prosecutor, and a jury to decide. Many parents who have been convicted of child abuse did not believe they were harming the child during the disciplining, but were found guilty of abuse by a jury. These cases include a mother who sat on her son to control him during his temper tantrum, her weight caused his lungs to collapse and he died of suffocation. A father who hit his son with a belt, leaving belt marks on his arms, thighs and back was also convicted of aggravated child abuse in Florida. A mother who attempted to force her rebellious teenager into her room as punishment, was found guilty of aggravated child abuse when the teenager tripped on her dirty cloths that were scattered all over the floor and the mother in turn kicked the teenager one time in the thigh causing a bruise.

Courts recognize that the legislature should be quite careful about intrusion into family relationships and that the court must tread lightly when evaluating borderline abuse versus discipline cases. If you or anyone you know is being accused of child abuse contact one of our attorneys. We can begin putting you in the best position for legal success.

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