Corporal Punishment in Maryland Family Law

leather-strap-on-hood-1281076-mBefore administering corporal punishment, a parent in Maryland must consider the child’s age, size, ability to understand the punishment, and ability to comply with the punishment. Because standards have changed significantly in the last few decades, it can be difficult for some parents to know what kinds of punishments are completely unacceptable and which ones are more appropriate to a situation. While a “spanking” may be appropriate for some children at certain developmental stages, haphazard striking in a fit of rage is not. This issue can become a critical one in a divorce and child custody case.

Section 4-501(a)  contains the definition of abuse for family law cases. Abuse under 4-501 is defined as (1) an act causing serious bodily harm, (2) an act that places someone covered by the law in fear of imminent serious bodily harm, (3) assault in any degree, (4) rape or sexual offense, and (5) false imprisonment. Abuse can also include abuse of a kid, but it does not preclude reasonable corporal punishment by a parent or stepparent, depending upon the kid’s age or condition.

Section 5-701 covers “child abuse and neglect.” That law defines abuse as (1) physical or mental injury of a child by any person who has responsibility for the child where circumstances indicate the child’s health is harmed or (2) sexual abuse.

In a 2004 case, the Maryland Court of Appeals considered whether the Court of Special Appeals had erred in its review of an administrative agency decision related to corporal punishment. The Court of Special Appeals had ruled that a parent couldn’t be responsible for indicated child abuse when he administered corporal punishment to his son and his son was hurt while trying to get away.

The case arose when a married couple was called by their son’s daycare. The daycare told them that their son had punched and kicked his pregnant teacher in the stomach and asked them to pick up their son from the center. The husband and wife had experienced numerous complaints about their son’s violent behavior in the past. They had tried lots of different forms of discipline, but nothing worked. Accordingly, they decided to use corporal punishment.

The father struck his six-year-old son with his own belt. His son evaded punishment and grabbed the belt. As a result the father hit the son’s lower back with a belt buckle, causing a giant bruise. The next day the daycare reported the injuries they saw to Child Protective Services. The department charged him with child abuse.

The administrative law judge who heard the case reasoned that though the father loved his child, the punishment placed the child at substantial risk and potential for harm. The judge affirmed the indicated child abuse charge. The Court of Special Appeals reversed. It reasoned that corporal punishment could not be changed from lawful corporal punishment into  illegal child abuse because the child had refused to stand still and accept the punishment.

The Court of Appeals explained that the administrative law judge’s ruling was entitled to a deferential review. The court reasoned that it wasn’t unreasonable to use corporal punishment generally, but the particular circumstances (the dad swinging the belt buckle at a six-year-old trying to get away) created a substantial risk of harm. The ALJ had found there was a danger that the belt would hit the eyes or teeth and the appellate court found this to be a reasonable judgment. The appellate court further explained that the way the statutes are written, there is no definition of child abuse that includes reasonable corporal punishment.

Allegations of abuse can have a serious impact on a child custody case. If you have are dealing with sensitive child custody issues, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation. Our office may be able to help you through this difficult time.

More Blogs:

Dissipation of Marital Funds in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2013

Neglect in Maryland Family Law Cases, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, November 12, 2013

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