Associated Press, August 29, 1998
Alabama native says corporal punishment is God-given right
By Alexis Chiu
WOBURN, Mass. (AP) -- He knows it sounds like a tall tale. But Donald Cobble insists that as a child he never, ever sassed his father.
"Had I done it, he probably would've knocked me into the middle of next week," said the 37-year-old pastor, who grew up in Alabama and now lives in Woburn. "I was raised by somebody who meant business."
Now, Cobble is the no-nonsense father who doles out an old-fashioned whipping -- belt and all -- when his 11-year-old son, Judah, steps out of line.
What Cobble says is his God-given right and responsibility, the state labeled child abuse. Yet months after the Department of Social Services said it substantiated allegations against Cobble, it unexpectedly dropped the case.
Now, the Christian missionary says he's on a quest to change the way the state deals with parents who use corporal punishment.
"Here's an agency that has liberty to do what they want with no repercussions," Cobble said. "It is my responsibility as Judah's parent to use corporal punishment if need be ... It is a clear biblical prescription." After investigating a complaint from teachers at Judah's elementary school in Peabody, DSS officials concluded in March 1997 that Cobble's actions constituted physical abuse. The agency recommended that Cobble not be left alone with his son until the boy turns 18 and sign a form promising not to spank Judah again.
Cobble refused. Three months later, DSS closed the case. He also told DSS he wouldn't hesitate to physically discipline his son again.
"When they said, 'Are you going to continue to spank him?' I said that if the need arises, I will," Cobble recalled.
DSS defines abuse as "the nonaccidental commission of any act by a caretaker upon a child under age 18 which causes or creates a substantial risk of physical or emotional injury."
Citing privacy concerns, the department wouldn't say exactly why it dropped the case, but indicated that the child was determined to no longer be at risk.
"Families have to work with us," said spokesman David Van Dam. "If they refuse, and we don't feel there's imminent danger, we would close the case."
On its own, corporal punishment is not illegal under Massachusetts law. But the line between discipline and abuse lies at the discretion of DSS workers.
Cobble believes he was singled out by the agency because of the morals of social workers, not because of concern for his son's safety.
"They told me it's not illegal, but that the behavior is not acceptable in this state," Cobble said. "There is clearly an unwritten law in their minds that they don't accept spanking ... I transgressed their unwritten, personal law."
Indeed, the report substantiating allegations of abuse states that the "father reports that he is from Alabama, and that 'whipping' a child with a belt is an accepted manner of discipline. However, in the family's current location and circumstances such use of discipline does place the child at risk of physical hurt/harm, and is not acceptable."
Despite Cobble's vow to continue using a whip to punish his son, Van Dam said DSS does not feel Judah is currently at risk.
"(If we did), we would get involved again," he said.
The trouble began when Cobble received a note from a teacher saying that Judah, who has attention-deficit disorder, had acted up in school.
"He had been disobedient and rebellious to her," Cobble recalled. "Based on my biblical views, rebellion's a pretty serious issue. So he got a spanking."
Weeks later, when Judah got in trouble with the teacher again, he told her it would mean another spanking from his father. She alerted school authorities, who called DSS. The agency conducted an investigation and found the allegations were supported.
Van Dam said there are no state statistics to show how many cases deemed "supported" -- such as Cobble's -- end up being closed without further action.
But Deborah Daro, research director of the Chicago-based National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, said such a disposition isn't uncommon.
Daro said a chronic lack of resources and manpower means that social service agencies often devote the bulk of their time to only the most young, vulnerable and unmistakably at-risk children.
"That's the state of the child welfare system in this country," she said, adding that even among "confirmed" cases of abuse -- such as Cobble's -- an estimated 30 to 40 percent of families don't receive "meaningful" state services.
Cobble's strong beliefs come from enduring spankings through his late teens in Auburn, Ala., both at home with a belt and at school with a wooden paddle.
He recalled getting a "major whoopin" from his aunt when, at age 9, he and a cousin took money found in her couch and spent it all on candy.
"She smoked our ends with a switch," he said. "We were singing a new song then."
Cobble attended college at the Rhema Bible Training Center in Oklahoma. After serving as an assistant pastor in Massachusetts and Florida, he became a missionary, traveling to such places as Romania, India and Latvia.
Now associate pastor at the revivalist Christian Teaching and Worship Center in Woburn, Cobble has taken Judah out of public school and hired a home-school teacher. After divorcing his wife, Lisa, last year, Cobble has primary custody of his son.
He said he is considering taking legal action against DSS to recover $15,000 spent on legal expenses. He also wants to work with legislators to try to rein in the power of DSS.
"Spare the rod, spoil the child," he said, quoting Scripture. "There are those rare occasions when a kid won't do anything wrong. But for the most part, kids need the rod every once in a while."