In re: A.E.: When Spanking Crosses the Line to Abuse

Family courts in Virginia strive first and foremost to preserve and promote the well-being of children within their purview. One of the most important ways they do that is by ensuring children are not left in situations in which they are vulnerable to abuse.

Child protective services in Virginia is charged with investigating such allegations, and findings are then turned over to law enforcement, family court or, in some cases, both. While there is no excuse for the intentional abuse of children, our Fairfax family law attorneys also recognize there are some instances in which parents may not perceive their actions as such. It is not uncommon for those who received corporal punishment to mete out the same with their own children.

However, the legal landscape on this issue has changed dramatically in the last two decades, and what the courts deemed acceptable when this generation was young may no longer be tolerated. The consequences can be severe, up to and including loss of child custody. An experienced lawyer may help to mitigate the severity of the situation, and can help to suggest alternatives such as enrollment in parenting courses and anger management therapy.

A recent example of changing times was illustrated in the case of In re: A.E., before the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District. According to court records, the mother and father married in 2009 in Texas, when she was 18 and he was 20. The pair had a baby girl in 2011, and recently moved to California.

One afternoon, a neighbor called police after hearing a child being hit. Investigators responded to find the child with five-to-six-inch long red welts on the back of the 3-year-old girl’s leg and buttocks. The father explained his daughter had been misbehaving, and he struck her with the belt as a means of discipline.

The father was arrested for child abuse. Post-Miranda, he offered police a statement indicating his daughter had disobeyed him four times in less than an hour, including kicking him and throwing a belt at him. He said he felt it his duty as a father to discipline her to make her understand such actions would not be tolerated. He indicated he disciplined her “not for sport or fun, but so that one day, just as I thank my parents for their care for me, she will do the same for me.”

He indicated he was only trying to strike her in the behind with the belt, but the girl moved and he mistakenly struck her on the side.

A child protection services caseworker was also assigned to the case. An investigation by the agency found the child’s actions “excessive,” resulting in unreasonable pain and suffering. The father was ordered out of the family home, and allowed twice-weekly visits with the child, who remained in the care of her mother.

Later, the father petitioned to be allowed back in the home, expressing a willingness to “do whatever is necessary” to be back with his family again. The court heard testimony from the mother, who said she did not agree with that type of discipline and would intervene were it ever to happen again. She also indicated she believed the father remorseful, and he cried regularly at being separated from his family. He also indicated parenting courses were helping him to see the benefit of alternative methods of discipline.

Still, child protective services argued he should first have to complete a full year of parenting courses, accompanied by supervised visits, before being allowed to return to living with his family. The father hired an attorney, contested this argument and won. The appellate court ruled removal of the child from his custody is unwarranted because clear and convincing evidence failed to support the juvenile court’s finding that his presence was a substantial danger to the child’s physical or mental well-being.

While the courts are right to take matters of child welfare very seriously, there also needs to be a fair amount of discretion offered to consider the individual circumstances of each case. Given the seriousness of these cases, it’s imperative that those facing similar circumstances have an experienced legal advocate on their side, ensuring their rights as parents are respected and the preservation of the family bond is upheld.

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