The Salt Lake Tribune, February 10, 2001
When Is Spanking Children Abuse?
By Amy Hodson
Spanking or paddling a child would not be considered abuse by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services under a bill approved by a House committee Friday.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Matt Throckmorton, R-Springville, attempts to more clearly define when parental discipline crosses the line.
"All that we're doing is carving out a reasonable area," Throckmorton told the committee. "This is not abuse."
The bill stipulates that spanking or paddling by a parent is considered reasonable unless the discipline is excessive enough to cause physical or mental harm to a child. Physical harm is defined as bruising, sustained soft tissue swelling or fractures of bone or skull.
Though spanking and paddling generally are considered reasonable discipline by the DCFS, Throckmorton said it should be codified in Utah law.
Some child advocates suggested lawmakers focus more directly on the problem of child abuse by getting parents into classes that teach proper forms of discipline.
"This is a situation that can be handled within DCFS policy," said Katie Gregory, a policy analyst with the advocacy group Utah Children. "We would rather see the Legislature focus on the real issue, rather than define how much spanking is too much."
Kristin Brewer, a member of the Child Abuse and Neglect Advisory Council, pointed out that reasonable discipline already exists as a defense under Utah code.
But Throckmorton said the bill is necessary because DCFS caseworkers often have philosophical differences about spanking and the bill will make it clear what constitutes reasonable discipline.
Rep. Trisha Beck, D-Sandy, said the line the bill attempts to draw is too fuzzy. "I don't think this is a message we need to send to parents," said Beck. "Where is the cutoff point?"
The line between abuse and discipline is a difficult one to distinguish, said Abel Ortiz, child welfare director for DCFS. "We have to go in and assess the whole situation."
In fiscal 2000, DCFS received about 17,000 referrals for child abuse and neglect. Of those, about 6,000 were substantiated, some involving more than one child.
Assessing mental harm to a child as a result of spanking or paddling may be more difficult than assessing physical harm. The bill defines mental harm as an impairment of a child's ability to function within the child's normal range of behavior.
Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum, who otherwise spoke in favor of the bill, said determination of a child's normal range of behavior could be ambiguous.
"Who makes that determination?" Ruzicka said. "Especially if the child is not in school."
Several people who spoke at Friday's committee meeting said they initially were opposed to the bill because it seemed to allow unlawful abuse of a child. For example, a child might not seem to be mentally or physically hurt by a hard swat, but who can know?
Some critics said they felt better after the committee approved several amendments clarifying that parents cannot punish in a manner that "with a reasonable probability" might result in physical or mental harm.
David Corwin, medical director of Primary Children's Medical Center's child protection team, said at first he found the bill troubling. But now, he said, "I think we can work with this."
Throckmorton said he would work with DCFS on the mental harm definitions in the bill. Otherwise, he said he believes his bill provides a concrete answer to whether moderate spanking is abuse.
Committee Chairman Carl Saunders, R-Ogden, told panel members spanking and paddling were certainly reasonable when he was young. "I never got a spanking I didn't deserve."