A few years ago, I had witnessed a man -- my acquaintance's husband -- spanking his 3-year-old daughter repeatedly with a leather belt. She cried hysterically, and, when the toddler tried to use her hands to shield her bare bottom, he threatened to break her fingers. Deeply disturbed, I called Child Protective Services and described the situation. The social worker, unimpressed, agreed with me that the father was engaging in "unforgivably" poor parenting, but said that nothing I described was illegal by Alabama law.
Although most experts agree that spanking is not an effective form of discipline for the majority of kids, there is a tremendous gray area between legally acceptable spankings and abuse. Just when does a swat on the butt cross the line into the realm of child abuse? The answer depends on individual opinion as well as variation between legal jurisdictions. Here are some of the guidelines used to legally define spanking as child abuse.
1. Spanking is child abuse when it leaves lasting injuries.In most jurisdictions, spanking is considered abusive when it causes lasting, visible physical injury. Bruises or lacerations left by a spanking implement are considered to be defining signs of child abuse. Welts lasting more than a few hours are also indicative of excessive corporal punishment.
2. Spanking is sometimes considered abusive when it involves a belt, paddle or rod.In some, but not all states, it is illegal to spank a child with any implement besides an open-palmed hand. These are among the most controversial anti-spanking laws, since many families use spanking implements by tradition.
3. Spanking is child abuse when it is age-inappropriate. Some states stipulate that corporal punishment is inappropriate for children in certain age groups. Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be illegal to spank a child under the age of 18 months, 2 years or 3 years. Spanking an older child, such as a teenager, can also be child abuse. After puberty, spankings can become a form of sexual assault and humiliation.
4. "Spanking" anywhere besides the buttocks or thighs can be abusive.Parents who use corporal punishment should not strike the child anywhere besides the buttocks or thighs. Most other parts of the body, including the back, hands, face and feet, have much thinner, more delicate skin and no fatty cushion. As a result, strikes to these areas can be intensely painful and may cause lasting injury.
5. Spanking is abuse when it's, well, abusive. The language used to define child abuse is often intentionally vague. While it's often hard to define specific parameters for child abuse, law enforcers generally take on the "I know it when I see it" response. Regardless of the level of physically evident injury, spanking is abusive when it is very painful, causes serious emotional harm, or any use of excessive and unreasonable force.
If you believe that a child you know is being abused, call your local police to discuss the situation. Even if it is not legally considered abusive, local organizations may be able to help the family find safer, more effective methods for disciplining their children.