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Corporal Punishment in Pennsylvania – Distinguishing Allowable Parental Discipline from Child Abuse / Criminal Acts

Special Report: Discipline vs. Child Abuse
Reported by: Ben Russell
Last Update: 5:56 am

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Special Report: Discipline vs. Child Abuse

Being a parent sometimes requires a measure of tough love. But even according to some of the leading law enforcement minds in the state, the line between discipline and abuse is sometimes unclear – specifically when it comes to spanking.

Mimi Duncan, of Harrisburg, loves being a mother.

“Just taking it day by day,” Duncan said of her son three-year-old son Dymere. “Everything is new to me.”

Duncan said she has never spanked Dymere, but if he does need correction, she lets him know.

“He does get maybe a tap here and there, and there are time outs and stuff like that,” Duncan said. “Nothing hardcore though, like beatings or anything like that.”

There are many methods of correcting a child by spanking – with a hand, a belt, an extension cord, a wooden spoon, etc. And depending on how they’re applied, and the damage inflicted, all of those methods are legal.

Recent studies, including one from Tulane University released last month, show that spanking children around age 3 can make them more aggressive by 5; that parents are essentially teaching kids it’s okay to hit.

“Usually we have children not learning good things from spanking,” said Harrisburg-area child psychologist Melinda Eash.

Eash said strategies like “time out” are much more effective at stopping unwanted behavior.

Eash’s recommendation is that parents who do spank can best avoid harming their children, and an abuse investigation, by getting their own emotions in check.

“In the case of spanking, when parents are hitting their kids out of anger then we start running the risk of crossing the line,” Eash said.

“That’s, in theory, easier said than done,” said Ed Marsico, Dauphin County’s District Attorney, who also heads up the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association. “As a parent, most of the disciplining I do is in anger.”

Marsico reviewed Pennsylvania’s law that addresses parental corporal punishment and confirmed that, legally speaking, parents are allowed to strike their children.

The law reads as follows:

Parents can use reasonable supervision and control when raising their children.23 Sec. 6302.[Ci.] Parent/guardian/person responsible for general care and supervision/ person acting at request of the above may use force for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting welfare of minor including the prevention or punishment of his misconduct, if the force is not designed to cause or known to create a substantial risk of causing death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, mental distress, or gross degradation. 18 Sec. 509.[Cr.]

But reality, Marsico said, is not so black and white. When discipline becomes child abuse is in the eye of the investigator.

“We’ve prosecuted parents for using two-by-fours to strike their child, for extreme beatings,” Marsico said, giving an example of a clear cut case of abuse. “Ultimately it’s a common sense approach that we have to take.”

Then there are the methods of spanking. Believe it or not, if a parent chooses a belt/switch/ruler over their hand, there’s a good chance they’re in the clear. It is the damage they inflict that will make the ultimate difference.

For Mimi Duncan, and her son Dymere, that’s not a concern.

“It’s like maybe a hand tap,” Duncan said of the physical discipline she has occasionally doled out to her boy. “And he can probably count on his hands the number of times he’s actually had that.”

A general rule of them, according to Marsico, is that any discipline resulting in a fracture, bleeding or severe bruising is certainly in the realm of abuse.

And to ensure that Mimi Duncan, or any other parent, never crosses the line from discipline to abuse, focus needs to be put on love. Are you trying to make the child listen, or teach right from wrong? Are you enforcing that you make their decisions, or that they need to make healthy ones?

There are instances, however, when people can be wrongly accused of child abuse. Harrisburg-area attorney Mark Scaringi told CBS 21 News that within the past year his law firm represented a stepfather who was charged with child abuse when he spanked his stepdaughter and left a bruise. Scaringi said the charges were ultimately dropped. And CBS 21 News confirmed with a local district attorney that just because a child develops a bruise, it does not mean that abuse took place.
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