Spare The Rod, Spoil The Child, Spurn The Indictment?

Adrian Peterson’s recent indictment for child abuse has sparked national controversy regarding the use of physical discipline, and has raised the legitimate question of when–if ever–physical discipline is appropriate? The opinions have been pouring in from far and wide, ranging from Sean Hannity’s defense of using a belt for spanking, to Chris Carter’s impassioned plea against any form of physical discipline. Just as there appears to be no clear-cut line between discipline and child abuse in the court of public opinion, there is no clear distinction between the two in the court of law.

It is a felony under Wisconsin law for anyone to cause bodily harm to a child through either intentional or reckless conduct. However, in spite of this general rule, a person responsible for a child’s welfare has the privilege to reasonably discipline a child, which could in certain instances involve acts of physical discipline. Specifically, “reasonable discipline may involve only such force as a reasonable person believes is necessary. It is never reasonable discipline to use force which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death or creates an unreasonable risk of great bodily harm or death.”

While this helps to focus the inquiry, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question: what sort of discipline is “reasonable?” Is spanking a child with a bare hand reasonable? What about with a belt? Or a switch? Is it the form of discipline that makes it unreasonable, or does it become unreasonable when it begins to leave bruises or marks?

If the national conversation surrounding this matter tells us anything, it is that there is no universal definition of “reasonable,” when it comes to discipline. Instead, each case is dependent on the facts specific to that case, including the age of the child, the reason for the discipline, and the method and manner in which it was implemented. Ultimately, a jury will make a determination of whether or not the conduct in question was “reasonable discipline,” or instead crossed the line to child abuse. Because of the uncertain nature of these types of charges, in the unfortunate event that you are concerned you may face allegations of child abuse, it is important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.