When Does Discipline Become Abuse?

Some types of physical actions are clearly abusive. It is never okay for an adult to sexually abuse a child, provide a child with illegal drugs or to burn or choke a child. However, the line between parental and child abuse is not always that clear. 
Many families strongly believe in spanking as a means of punishment, for example. Other families believe that spanking is a form of child abuse. Most states do not have a law that prohibits spanking but instead rely on their child abuse statutes to determine if an individual case crossed the line between discipline and abuse. 
 Parental Discipline

Most states do not prohibit parents from spanking their children in all circumstances. However, all of the states have statutes that define child abuse. If a parent is accused of child abuse because he or she has struck a child then a judge or jury would need to decide whether the parent’s actions constituted abuse, based on the state law as applied to the facts of the specific case.
The federal government has enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) which provides minimum standards that the states must incorporate into their child abuse statutes. CAPTA requires the definition of child abuse and neglect to include, “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
Pursuant to the CAPTA standard, a short spanking is unlikely to constitute child abuse because it does not result in serious physical or emotional harm. However, if the parent repeatedly spanked the child with a closed fist or on a body part that resulted in significant pain then the parent’s action could constitute child abuse depending on the severity of the actions and the state in which the actions occurred. Further, if the parent’s actions resulted in a physical injury then the action could constitute abuse.
Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment is the intentional infliction of pain that is designed to punish a person for his or her actions and teach that person not to do it again. In the United States, corporal punishment most often refers to the physical discipline of children in a school setting. About one half of the states including California and Massachusetts have outlawed corporal punishment. 
However, in many states corporal punishment remains legal. Corporal punishment seems to be most prevalent in the Southern states such as Florida and Mississippi. In these states, corporal punishment like parental physical discipline is allowed but the right to inflict corporal punishment is not unlimited. School administrators, teachers and other adults must still abide by the state’s child abuse laws.
Physical discipline of children is a hotly contested topic in the United States. Some parents believe it to be an effective means of disciplining their children and other parents believe it to be cruel. The law does not prevent all physical discipline of children but it does provide limits and it seeks to protect children from child abuse.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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