Domestic violence laws target physical abuse that occurs between family members, people who live in the same home, and people in romantic, sexual, or dating relationships. Parents and children fall within states’ definitions of “family members” to whom these laws apply. Does this mean that a parent commits domestic violence every time the parent uses physical force to discipline a child?
The short answer is no, not every instance of parental discipline constitutes a crime. Many states exclude reasonable parental discipline from their definition of domestic and family violence. Still, the answer to whether a parent’s discipline of a child constitutes abuse is not always clear. While many people might easily characterize instances of severe abuse, such as broken bones or malnourishment, as criminal behavior rather than proper parental discipline, other instances of a parent using force to instill discipline (sometimes referred to as corporal punishment) may not be so easily categorized.
A few states attempt to differentiate acceptable discipline from unacceptable violence. For example, Connecticut’s definition of family violence attempts to exclude some parental discipline, but doesn't give any real guidance. The law states that the crime “shall not include acts by parents or guardians disciplining minor children, unless such acts constitute abuse.”
(Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-38a).
Missouri law is a bit more specific. It states that “abuse” includes the offenses of assault, battery, coercion, harassment, sexual assault, and unlawful imprisonment, “except abuse shall not include…discipline of a child, including spanking, in a reasonable manner.” Of course, the real question will often be, "What is reasonable?", which the statute doesn't define.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 455.010, emphasis added.)
Hawaii takes a somewhat different approach. The law gives some guidelines on how to evaluate instances of discipline, requires an examination of the disciplinarian's intent, and identifies specific unacceptable consequences. The law provides that parents, guardians, or other persons responsible for the care and supervision of a child are justified in using force as long as the force takes into account the child’s age and size; and the force is reasonably related to safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare. The parent or guardian disciplining the child cannot use force that risks “substantial bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, or mental distress or neurological damage.”
(Haw. Rev. Stat. § 703-309)
Despite legislative efforts to distinguish between acceptable parental punishment and child abuse, the line between the two may be unclear in some instances. As demonstrated by the statutes above, attempts to define such a line can create additional questions. For example, does discipline that leaves a mark on a child’s skin constitute substantial bodily injury, even if the mark is no longer visible minutes after the administration of discipline? If not, what about a mark that remains visible for days? What constitutes a “reasonable manner” of discipline? The job of fleshing out more specific guidelines frequently falls upon the states’ courts. Judges must interpret the meaning of “abuse”, “discipline”, and other terms that appear in domestic abuse statutes. To do this, judges look to decisions in similar cases. Judges may also reference other sources, such as legislative records, to aid them in interpreting the meaning of statutes.
Juries may also be required to determine whether a parent’s actions constitute child abuse in trials where a parent charged with domestic violence asserts that the allegedly criminal use of force against the child was actually reasonable (and legal) parental discipline. Judges provide juries with the relevant statutes and precedents to guide the jurors making this determination.
Because state legislatures have recognized that not all instances of a parent using force to discipline a child are illegal, judges, juries, law enforcement, and state agencies will continue to be called upon to determine whether acts amount to acceptable parental discipline or domestic abuse.