Philadelphia Enquirer --Metro Section, January 14, 1999

When discipline silences, forever

The gurney flew over the false cheer of the purple threshold and into the trauma room in Children's Hospital. Doctors and nurses swarmed around the limp, bruised body of a 4-year-old boy. They grabbed for the tubes spilling out of one wall like plastic spaghetti. Beneath huge, white UFO lights, they worked desperately.

At 7:15 a.m., the frenzy ceased. The room fell silent.

Michael Davis had died from an apparent overdose of discipline.

Discipline.

This is what Jane McBurrows is calling the way her husband sometimes smacked the children in his care, or used a belt instead of a tongue-lashing to keep them in line.

In her statement to investigators, she said her husband, the Rev. Javan M. McBurrows, spanked Michael for wetting his pants and sneaking a peek at two girls in the family bathtub.

You know there has to be more to this story.

It will all come out in court. Mr. McBurrows is expected to be charged with murdering the boy, whose mother placed him and two of his sisters in the pastor's care.

But this is a crime whose dismal echo will be heard long after the killer has gone to jail. For whoever walloped that child beyond an inch of his life was not very original.

Bones don't break easily

Dr. Joanne Decker sees beaten babies all the time.

"There are different levels of abuse," said Decker, who was in the ER at Children's Hospital yesterday. "I see children who've been hurt from overzealous discipline maybe every other shift. The devastating injuries, about once a month."

Decker, who has two small children of her own, says she understands how exasperating they can be. She sympathizes with parents who run out of patience.

She recently treated an 11-month-old girl whose grandmother had broken the baby's arm, trying to put on her undershirt.

"It's not easy to break a child's bones," said Decker. "But when someone's forthright about what happened, and clearly upset like this woman was, you can help."

What doesn't help is the widespread belief that it's really OK to hit a kid -- and that it's the severity, not the principle, that's a problem.

"Most Americans believe in corporal punishment, and there are studies that show that 95 percent spank their children," said Dr. Cindy Christian of Children's Hospital, a specialist in shaken-baby syndrome.

In most cases, the whupping parents dispense in the name of love does not approach deadly force.

But it can.

What lesson is learned?

"In many cases of child abuse, there is no intent to kill," said Christian. "The problem is uncontrolled violence and aggression. It's a lack of self-control on the part of the adult. They're striking out in anger and frustration."

And whether that frustration leads to a welt on the backside or to a broken bone, it's not healthy.

It may be efficient to hit a disobedient kid to get him to stop what he's doing. But you can't call it a lesson in how to behave.

"Corporal punishment is a punishment, not a discipline," said Christian.

It is her opinion that smacking a child is a hypocritical way to teach nonviolence or self-control. It gets the point across that you're upset, but implies that it's all right for a big person to hurt a small one.

It's her professional experience that when a 150-pound adult uses physical force on a 20-pound child, the result can be tragic, if not deadly.

The McBurrowses, who lived in squalor, chronic debt and conflict, are not typical in any way. But they occupy a place on the dangerous line that connects a smack across the cheeks to a fractured skull.

No 4-year-old deserves to be hit for having trouble controlling his bladder. No boy that young and innocent should be hurt and made to feel there's something wrong or dirty about seeing the children in his own family naked.

This story did not begin or end with Mr. McBurrows. The beating goes on as we stand complicit -- in silence and ignorance, if not in action.

1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.


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