The state’s highest court on Thursday expressly ruled for the first time that parents may not be held criminally liable for the use of “reasonable” force in disciplining their children, saying the punishment “remains firmly woven into our nation’s social fabric.”
But in a careful legal parsing of a highly personal issue, the justices found that the force used must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor,” and does not cause physical harm or severe mental distress.
The 25-page ruling was issued as the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the assault conviction of a father for publicly spanking his nearly 3-year-old daughter in Brockton in 2011.
“It follows that we must guard against the imposition of criminal sanctions for the use of parenting techniques still widely regarded as permissible and warranted,” the court held in a unanimous decision written by Justice Barbara Lenk.
At the same time, the court sought to strike a balance between parental rights and protecting children against abuse. In cases where it is difficult for authorities to distinguish between discipline and abuse, children’s safety should be given priority.
“The balance will tip in favor of the protection of children,” the decision held.
The ruling comes at a time of growing debate about spanking, an issue that captured national attention last year when football star Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse for striking his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. Peterson later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor.
Legal distinctions between spanking and abuse can be difficult to draw, and approaches vary by state. Alabama permits parents to use “reasonable and appropriate physical force,” and Michigan allows parents to take steps to reasonably discipline a child.
Thursday’s SJC ruling drew a range of reactions, with some child advocates saying it sent a troubling message to parents that it’s OK to use aggression.
Noting that the court held that spanking is permissible if “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor,” Jetta Bernier of the Massachusetts Citizens for Children, said the practice does neither.
“It implies that physical punishment can, in fact, support the welfare of children,” Bernier said. “I would object to that altogether. It doesn’t communicate to children what they did wrong and what they should do instead.”
The SJC was ruling on a 2011 case involving a commotion at a Brockton bus terminal, where Jean Dorvil was walking with his daughter and her mother. According to police, Dorvil kicked his daughter in her backside while yelling “shut up,” and then spanked her. The officer said he saw the mother pick up the child to shield her, and that the child was crying and looked frightened.
When the officers approached, Dorvil said he was disciplining his child. He denied kicking the child, saying he was just playing around. A second officer also described the kick as slow and hesitant, according to the court ruling.
Dorvil was charged with assault and battery. At trial, Dorvil and the child’s mother testified that he spanked her because the child disobeyed his direction to go to his mother and continued to play on the sidewalk near the street. He denied ever telling her to shut up.
He was found guilty, with the judge concluding that if “you’re in public with your kids, it’s not appropriate to discipline in this fashion.” His appeal was denied, with the court ruling that the child lacked the capacity to understand the discipline and that the father spanked her “when he was upset and angry.”
The SJC rejected that line of argument.
“It is understandable that parents would be angry at a child whose misbehavior necessitates punishment, and we see no reason why such anger should render otherwise reasonable uses of force impermissible,” the court ruled.
Dorvil’s lawyer, Jacob Stone, declined to comment Thursday.
The Plymouth district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, took issue with the court’s reversal.
“We have never opposed recognition that a parent should be permitted to use a reasonable amount of force, if necessary, to discipline or control a child,” the office said in a statement. “We respectfully disagree that there was insufficient evidence in the case, particularly where there was testimony the defendant kicked the child like a football.”
Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the decision carefully balanced parents’ constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit with the need to protect them against abuse.
“The court used unequivocal language that there is a strong need for parents to assert some guidance and direction over their children,” he said.
For the first time, the court recognized a “parental privilege defense” that most other states have recognized, Healy said.
In 1999, the SJC ruled that a Woburn minister did not abuse his 9-year-old son when he spanked him with a belt, and criticized the state’s social services department for finding that he had. But the court did not directly address the minister’s claim that he had the right to discipline his child according to his religious beliefs.
Surveys show that spanking is widespread nationally and enjoys broad support. A 2013 report from Child Trends, a research center in Maryland, found that about 94 percent of parents of children ages 3 to 4 report having spanked their children in the previous year.
Almost 80 percent of men and 65 percent of women agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking,” according to the report.
But research shows that spanking is linked to a range of negative outcomes for children, including antisocial behavior and substance abuse.
“I don’t believe it solves any long-term issues, and does more harm than good,” said Mary McGeown, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “We should be working with parents to have the skills to raise their children without resorting to physical force.”
McGeown praised the court for calling for children’s safety to supersede parental rights in difficult judgment calls.
“I think that has to be a guiding principle moving forward,” she said.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.