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The Confusion Over When Discipline & Spanking Turn into Child Abuse Accusations


There is no question that parenting during the pandemic has been difficult for many, especially divorced or otherwise separated parents who disagree with each other about issues related to raising their child, such as corporal punishment. Even though 65 to 80 percent of US parents spank their children, sometimes disagreements between parents over issues like these can even lead to false accusations of child abuse from one parent – especially when it comes to corporal punishment – because the issue is still quite controversial. This is in large part due to more and more experts coming out with studies which deduce that spanking children can ultimately cause emotional and physical harm that continues into adulthood, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and others.

As a result, although the right to raise your child as you see fit (within reasonable limits) has been upheld by the courts, and reasonable corporal punishment provided as an exemption from state child abuse statutes when it does not result in harm to the child, including here in Florida, there is still a significant amount of confusion over whether a parent or legal custodian is allowed to spank and/or otherwise physically discipline their child.

The Law in Florida

Florida law defines abuse as any willful or threatened act(s) or omission(s) that result in any mental, physical, or sexual abuse, harm, or injury to a child which causes or is likely to cause a child’s emotional, mental, or physical health to be significantly impaired, but carves out an exemption for corporal discipline by a legal custodian or parent for disciplinary purposes, dictating that it does not constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.

However, at the same time, the statute dictates that corporal discipline may be considered abusive or excessive when it results in the following, which includes a number of ‘grey’ areas, especially surrounding the definition of “harm:”

  • Abandonment of the child, where the caregiver, legal custodian, or parent makes no “significant contribution to the child’s care and maintenance” or “fails to establish or maintain a substantial contribution to [their] care and maintenance” or fails to “establish or maintain a substantial and positive relationship with the child, or both.” This includes but is not limited to “frequent and regular contact with the child through frequent and regular visitation or frequent and regular communication to or with the child”
  • Asphyxiation, drowning, or suffocation
  • Bites, cuts, lacerations, punctures
  • Bone or skull fractures
  • Brain or spinal cord damage
  • Burns or scalding
  • Cartilage damage
  • Committing, encouraging, forcing, or allowing the following to be committed against a child: sexual battery, sexual exploitation, solicitation for or engagement in prostitution, sexual performance, or lewd or lascivious acts
  • Disfigurement (temporary or permanent)
  • Dislocations
  • Exposure to alcohol or a controlled substance
  • Intracranial hemorrhage
  • Injury to internal organs
  • Injuries resulting from the use of a deadly weapon
  • Loss or impairment of a body function (temporary or permanent)
  • Neglect, which is defined as failing to supply the child with necessary items such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. when financially able to do so. A person who either willfully or through culpable negligence neglects a child, with or without causing great bodily harm, commits a third degree felony
  • Significant bruises or welts
  • Sprains

The statute defines “harm” as including excessively harsh or inappropriate disciplinary action that is likely to result in emotional, mental, or physical injury, requiring that the significance be evaluated in light of the age of the child, prior injuries, any trauma inflicted, etc. Given that a number of studies now publicly declare corporal discipline to impair a child’s emotional, mental, and physical health, and cause harm, it is understandable that significant questions are raised as to whether a parent simply spanking their child truly does violate the child abuse statute and whether the exemption is even relevant anymore in light of these expert opinions essentially indicating that spanking does automatic harm. As a result, the question of what is “reasonable” is essentially left up to the individual decisions made by law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and juries. Still, the courts have failed to provide a significant amount of guidance on this specific issue, to date.

If You Have Any Questions or Concerns Surrounding Disciplining Your Child, Contact an Experienced Florida Criminal Defense & Family Law Attorney

It is legally well within your right to spank your child as a form of discipline as long as you do not inflict significant bruises, welts, or other physical harm. If you have concerns or have been arrested for child abuse in connection with corporal discipline, contact West Palm Beach criminal attorney William Wallshein for a free consultation. As an attorney who regularly practices in and focuses on both criminal defense and family law, he has the specific experience in this area to provide the best defense possible for his clients.








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