Episode III: Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

To recap our story, Charles and Donna found their young daughter with her boyfriend after curfew, and a yelling match ensued in front of the family home. When James, the boyfriend, called the police out of fear for an escalating situation, the officers who arrived on scene ended up taking James himself into custody for drugs they found in his vehicle, and taking Charles into custody, as well, for suspected domestic battery, when his daughter was discovered with scratches on her face.

What will happen to Charles, who now faces an investigation into his treatment of his own daughter. Did he cause those scratches on her face? Did he go to far in his disciplining of his daughter, causing her to run away from home and injure herself? In what ways is Charles legally liable? Somewhere, although it is often difficult to tell exactly where, there is a line that separates discipline of a child from abuse. This issue once again drew national attention back in 2014, when Texas officials charged Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson with child abuse after he allegedly disciplined his 4-year-old son with a “switch.”

Here in Illinois, the law forbids “excessive” corporal punishment, which means that corporal punishment is legal in the home. The law does not define what is considered excessive. Overall, courts have not helped very much. They have repeatedly declared that “reasonableness” limits the parental right to discipline children, but this key word is not really defined, either.

Domestic Battery

Nearly all prosecutions under 720 ILCS 5/12-3.2 involve spousal abuse or some similar situation, such as a boyfriend hitting a girlfriend. The law broadly applies to “any family or household member,” a phrase that obviously includes an adult caregiver (parent, guardian, foster parent, or temporary caretaker who is also a relative due to blood or marriage) and a child.

Domestic battery is serious business. A first offense is a Class A misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine). Moreover, these convictions cannot be sealed or expunged under any circumstances, so a conviction is permanent.

The Parental Discipline Defense

This doctrine comes from People v. Roberts, a 2004 case, which held that “A parent is legally justified in using reasonable force when necessary as part of reasonable discipline of a child.” In Roberts, the court did not even really decide whether or not what the defendant allegedly did was “reasonable;” instead, the court simply held that an instruction worded in this way was legally acceptable.

All this begs the question of what is “reasonable.” No one really knows, but here are some possible parameters:

  • The child’s age and physical condition,
  • The child’s alleged disciplinary infraction,
  • Amount of evidence against the child (i.e. did the parent actually see the child misbehave or was the misbehavior reported by a sibling),
  • Prior ineffective discipline (e.g. time out did not work, so I had to escalate),
  • Elapsed time between infraction and discipline,
  • The nature of the injury to the child, and
  • The parent’s post-discipline behavior.

No one area is dispositive because in some cases, discipline that breaks the skin or causes another noticeable injury may be reasonable.

One final thought. Since the instruction uses the word “reasonable” twice, the standard is subjective. In other words, if the parent believed that the discipline was fair and called for under the circumstances, that fact will carry tremendous weight with the jury and may well result in a finding of not guilty. On the other hand, if the parent was intoxicated at the time, clearly punished the child out of anger, or some other similar circumstances exist, the jury may well reach the opposite conclusion, as the parent was arguably incapable of determining what was “reasonable” at that moment in time.

What will happen to Charles? Will he be charged with domestic battery, or will the facts of the case clear his name? Tune in next time to find out.

Contact Assertive Attorneys

Caregivers may have a valid defense against child abuse charges in Illinois. For a confidential consultation with an experienced criminal law attorney in Schaumburg, contact Glasgow & Olsson.

(image courtesy of Kevin Gent)

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