POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 22, 2011
The state Supreme Court has rightly given a man a second trial allowing a jury to decide whether the striking of his stepson was justifiable discipline; the trial judge had refused to allow the defense attorney to use that as a defense. The high court focused squarely on a defendant's right to present a defense, no matter how weak the evidence might be, in making its sound technical ruling. But its split 3-2 decision raises a deeper societal issue: the extremely hazy question of what qualifies legally as parental discipline versus child abuse.
Previous court cases reveal a wide range of outcomes in determining discipline or abuse, and dissenting Hawaii justices in the aforementioned defense decision thought the use of force was not acceptable parental discipline. Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge the fine line — and quick escalation — between discipline and domestic violence, and reassess what legally constitutes parental corporal punishment.
In Corpus Christi, Texas, a judge this month scolded a mother for spanking her 2-year-old child, although her open hand left no bruises on the child's buttocks.
"You don't spank children," Texas Judge Jose Longoria told Rosalina Gonzales. "You understand?"
Gonzales had reached a guilty plea agreement with the Corpus Christi prosecutor. She was sentenced to five years probation for causing injury to a child and has lost custody of her three children.
Less draconian was the Hawaii conviction by a jury three years ago of 46-year-old Cedric Kikuta of misdemeanor assault. After his stepson had fed the family's dog in September 2007, Kikuta said he noticed a stain on the floor and the boy, 14 at the time, said he would be unable to remove it. The stepfather said he then told the boy that he would ground him for a year if he himself would be able to remove the stain.
After the youth did not respond except to slam a glass door, Kikuta said he then pushed the boy with two hands, losing his balance because of recent leg surgery, dropped his crutch, and pushed the boy harder than intended. Kikuta said the boy swung the crutch at him, and Kikuta punched him twice "to try to make him let go of the crutch." The boy's nose was broken and teeth chipped.
The stepson denied swinging the crutch and said Kikuta punched him about five times in the face. After the boy fell to his knees, he said, Kikuta punched him on the back of the head two or three times.
Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura refused to allow the jury to consider taking into account the defense of parental discipline, which Hawaii law says is "not designed to cause or known to create a risk of substantial bodily injury," which, by statute, includes bone fractures.
Indeed, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse and neglect as including a parental or caretaker act resulting in "death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation" of a child. The Kikuta case is further complicated by the fact that the boy was physically stronger than his stepfather, and a physician said the boy's nose was "easily broken because it was a thin bone."
In the Hawaii high court's 3-2 ruling upholding a decision by the Intermediate Court of Appeals, Justice Simeon Acoba wrote that Judge Nishimura should have allowed the jury to consider parental discipline as long as there was related evidence, "no matter how weak, inconclusive or unsatisfactory."
All states have laws that define child abuse and most, including Hawaii and, yes, Texas, do not prohibit parents from spanking their children. Other kinds of physical confrontation may unintentionally result in injury and should be weighed in the context of parental discipline where appropriate. But the growing gray area of what is allowable discipline, murky beyond the occasional spanking, should get some scrutiny, so that the issue is not raised merely as a possible defense after a child is harmed.