Child Abuser or Father of the Year? Reflections on the Soto Decision
By Jordan Riak, May 4, 2002

One statement in the Los Angeles Times April 27 article, Burning Son's Hand Gets Dad $100 Fine, virtually leaps off the page. Referring to the five-year-old boy whose hand was held over a gas flame as punishment for stealing a pack of gum, Superior Court Judge James O. Perez said, "Maybe it will keep Junior from being one of our customers downstream."

Apparently, this judge has never inquired as to his other customers' upstream experiences, nor is he aware of the overwhelming body of evidence showing that the experience of torture in childhood is a fairly reliable predictor of later psychological dysfunction, including violent criminal behavior.

We're told in the article that Wellington Soto, the abusive father, had his own hand burned for punishment when he was a child. One might have guessed as much. But Judge Perez failed to pick up the clue. Moreover, there appears to be an almost palpable collusion between the man in the dock and the man on the bench, a gentlemen's understanding of sorts to the effect that all fathers inflict physical pain on their children. It's normal. It's necessary. If one doesn't do it, one fails as a dad. Mr. Soto's mistake was not one of substance but of degree (just barely) and bad form. Other fathers are more measured, more discreet. They generally stick to conventional methods of pain infliction. They don't leave visible wounds for some meddling schoolteacher like young Soto's to report. They manage to stay below the radar of authorities. They don't get caught.

The $100 fine Mr. Soto must pay is not for being flagrantly cruel to his child--that wasn't under consideration in the Perez courtroom--but for being a clumsy player in the game of fatherly "discipline." (Incidentally, where was Mama Soto while her child's hand was being cooked?)

Judge Perez's response to the prosecution's information that at other times Mr. Soto beat his son with a leather belt was not what the prosecution had hoped. The judge did not see any evidence of a pattern of abuse. (Don't all good fathers belt their little boys?) Through his permissive sentencing of the elder Soto--a mere token but one step short of honoring Mr. Soto as Father of the Year--and his utter indifference to the suffering of the younger Soto, the judge revealed volumes about his own childhood.

Unfortunately, Judge Perez and Mr. Soto are not rare specimens. Their view that child management is fear-based and pain-based is widely shared. Only because the particulars of this case push it off the scale of the ordinary into the realm of the absurd, did it attracted the attention of the press. Had Mr. Soto been ordered to pay a substantial fine and given some jail time followed by mandatory parenting classes and supervised visitation, it probably would have passed unnoticed.

The heart of the problem is not the ignorance and incompetence of the players in this particular drama, but of laws that pander to ignorance and incompetence, thus reinforcing and perpetuating them. The drafters of laws that purport to protect children seem much less interested in establishing the right of children to live safely than they are in protecting parents' presumed right of ownership of their children. By relegating children to the status of chattels, those laws set the worst possible standard for civilized behavior.

Consider the following exclusionary language in the California Codes Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300-304.7

…For purposes of this subdivision, "serious physical harm" does not include reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks where there is no evidence of serious physical injury.

How does one divine from such mush at what point "reasonable age-appropriate spanking" becomes something worse? Every adult who hits a child is left to interpret these words as liberally as needed to serve their interests or ease their conscience. What is reasonable to one spanker is unreasonable to another. The right age to spank according to one spanker is too early or too late according to another. And at what point does non-serious physical injury, which is deemed permissible, become serious physical injury, which is forbidden?

Not long ago, the high courts of Maine and Texas resolved these ambiguities, at least to their own satisfaction, in the following way. Bluntly paraphrased, they ruled if the child isn't dead or in the hospital, it isn't abuse.

The Soto case shines a bright, unflattering light on our society's woefully deficient child protection laws. The solution is not complicated. A wiser, more humane and better informed legislature must be heed the demands of a wiser, more humane and better informed public. Their first order of business should be to rescind antiquated laws that define children as mere property, and replace them with ones that give children the same level protection against assault and battery that is taken for granted by every other class of citizen. That's already been done in Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway and Sweden. Why not in the United States?

See: Burning son's hand gets dad $100 fine



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