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Child discipline and the law

Lorrie Mae Thomas was arraigned on six charges, including second-degree murder and child abuse. Associated Press file photo

The lines between discipline and child abuse are not clearly defined.

Most people would agree that children need discipline, but their thoughts on how to administer it and what is excessive vary from across the street to around the world.

“It’s not as clear cut of a line as most people would like it to be or as many people think it should be,” said Thomas Corbett, a casework administrator with the Monroe County Department of Human Services. “Parents in New York State have a very clear right to use physical punishment in their efforts to correct and discipline their kids.”

Corbett noted the penal code says things that might be considered a crime if done to another adult might be acceptable if a parent uses it as a form of disciplining a child.

For example, low-level harassment involves doing something that threatens, alarms or annoys someone such as slapping a face or looking like you are going to hit someone, but this would be not necessarily be considered a crime if a parent does so to their child.

Kristie Lee Anderson was charged with endangering the welfare of a child when she and her husband Sean left their toddlers to fend for themselves in the woods as they fled from police. Associated Press file photo

“The issue of corporal punishment is one that everybody’s got an opinion on, ranging from parents should never discipline their kids using corporal punishment to people who think corporal punishment is a very effective and reasonable method to discipline or correct their kids’ behavior,” Corbett said.

He said corporal punishment of children is allowed in New York, but the state takes an interest when it becomes excessive.

Corbett cited In the Matter of Rodney C., a 1977 Onondaga County Family Court case that is used as a guideline, establishing factors of what constitutes reasonable and excessive use of corporal punishment.

The factors include age, method, the level of the child’s understanding, why corporal punishment is used and if other methods were tried first.

For instance, Corbett said using corporal punishment in response to a 15-year-old child’s behavior is very different to using it in response to a 15-day-old child’s behavior.

“The law is always trying to balance the right of parents to raise their kids in the way they think is best with a similarly strong value that we need to protect kids in the community,” said Corbett, who has been in the field for more than 30 years. “They’re difficult decisions and they’re not always straight forward and clear cut. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to the point where there’s a clear dividing line that separates abusive or unacceptable behavior with acceptable behavior that everyone’s going to agree with.”

Danny Ribot was charged with endangering the welfare of a child after allegedly leaving his two-year-old son, Adonis, in a car for nearly nine hours. Associated Press file photo

On the other side, children, particularly teens, are becoming more aware of the laws and may use them against their parents.

Pamela J. Bayer, an assistant public defender who has worked in family court for 24 years, said some kids threaten to call Child Protective Services if they’re hit or make false allegations if their parent won’t let them do what they want.

She defends the parents, many of whom were raised in abusive situations or are living in violent neighborhoods trying to use any means they can to protect their children.

She has parents admit their discipline techniques are severe, but so are their circumstances. She said many of her clients are trying to keep their children off the streets so they don’t become pregnant or get shot.

“When you determine what is proper corporal punishment, you’re looking at a lot of factors,” Bayer said. “It’s not just some middle class home that has everything perfect. I try to make the court understand that what our life may be like in Pittsford or Brighton is so much different than on Jay Street and the risks to our children are so much different.”

She mentioned having a client who hit a 15-year old, trying to keep her from seeing a drug addict who had just been released from prison. The child was placed outside the home against the mother’s objection. The girl came home a year later, pregnant and ill with hepatitis C and venereal diseases and the mother said she would still whip her butt.

“Everyone has a story,” Bayer said. “Everyone has a right to have their side heard and have some understanding of where they’re coming from.”

Tahija Handberry was charged with aggravated manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child in the death of her son, Jmeir from chronic malnutrition. Associated Press file photo

She said a lot of times people just need some parenting techniques or other services.

“It’s a very complicated area from a court’s point of view,” Bayer said. “It’s difficult from an attorney’s point of view — being able to advocate for the parent their level of frustration on how to raise a child in the environment they’re subjected to.”

Judge Craig J. Doran, supervising judge of the Family Courts in the Seventh Judicial District, said the cases that come before family courts tend to be very emotionally involved with difficult facts to hear regarding abused or neglected children.

“They’re difficult facts for anyone to have to confront — not just the judge,” he said. “Certainly, children and families are most precious and how we treat our children as a society and as parents certainly says something about our priorities. They’re very important cases, probably among the most important cases that our courts confront.”

Stephen R. Weisbeck, director of the Juvenile Justice Division, The Legal Aid Society of Rochester, represents the children, from birth to age 18.

“When the cases come to court, it’s a pretty serious issue,” he said. “You hear that all the time, ‘Oh, we used to be able to discipline our kids.’ Believe me, kids are still being disciplined.”

He said he hasn’t seen where the definition has changed much, but that their roles have been more clearly defined. They are no longer called law guardians which some interpreted to mean they were responsible for the child’s well being. He said they are now more appropriately called attorneys for the children.

“We express their wishes to the court which sometimes is, ‘Yeah, I know my mother hit me, but I want to stay home with my mother and that would be the position we would take,” he said.

Aaron T. Cusimano and his wife Tina were arrained on a charge of endangering the welfare of a child, for leaving a loaded rifle within reach of their children, in the accidental shooting death of their 3-year-old daughter by her 9-year-old half brother. Associated Press file photo

Weisbeck said most of the cases involve bruises, black eyes, bucket handle fractures and twisted arms and many involve parents who use drugs or drink excessively. He said he think the answer lies in making sure there is enough money to provide the services to families in need.

“I would take exception to the fact that kids are acting out today because supposedly parents are not allowed to hit them,” he said. “That seems a bizarre premise that if we only let the parents hit our kids more, they’d be better behaved.”

Cultural differences are a huge issue too which make it difficult for judges, according to  Kathleen DeCataldo, executive director of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children.

She said disciplinary tactics are very different in many of the countries the nation’s immigrant population comes from, which also has to be taken into account.

DeCataldo said society views on how to deal with children have probably changed in the last 50 years since the 1960 federal Family Court Act created some definitions of child abuse and neglect, resulting in reporting changes, particularly by schools and other institutions that deal with children.

The commission was established in 1988 by then Chief Judge Judith Kaye to improve the lives and life chances of children involved with New York courts.

The definition of child abuse also depends on whether one is looking at it from a legal, medical or clinical perspective, said Jody Todd Manly, clinical director of Mount Hope Family Center which offers a variety of programs dedicated to helping children and families improve their lives.

She said, in general, New York laws are sensitive to the needs of parents and families and not wanting to intrude on decisions on how to raise children.

Vanessa Jackson was sentenced to seven years in state prison for withholding food from her four adopted boys. Associated Press file photo

“One of the challenging things is trying to find that balance,” Manly said. “I think there’s been a lot more awareness over the years of the many levels of the impacts of child abuse on families.”

She said there are a lot of ways to correct behavior without using aggression such as engaging the child in positive things, removing privileges, timeouts, providing structure and teaching children what is expected of them.

“There’s no question that it’s a challenging job being a parent and kids don’t come with a manual so it’s difficult to know what to expect at various levels of development,” Manly said. “Sometimes maltreatment is a result of some of the family stresses and the difficult environmental circumstances.”

She said Rochester is 11th in the country in terms of poverty and that children are exposed to a lot of violent crime.

“We have a very high concentration of poverty,” Manly said. “We have a lot of families that are struggling and sometimes that leads to child abuse.

“As a parent, I chose not to use spanking,” she added. “As a professional, we work with families to give them their own choices. I hope we can move more and more in the direction of providing prevention and services to help kids and families learn the skills that they need to be successful, both when the kids are young and as they grow into the next generation.”

Pulling things together is Mary Aufleger, a liaison in the Child Welfare Court Improvement Project for the Seventh Judicial District, a federally funded program which focuses on improving best practices in child welfare, adoption and foster care in courts.

She said the project is just one component in the state court system to help improve best practices and look at the well being of children and families.

Useful links

Monroe County Child and Family Services

The Legal Aid Society of Rochester

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Mt. Hope Family Center

National Child Traumatic Stress Network