Justices address parental discipline

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A mother who spanked her 11-year-old son with a belt or extension cord didn't cross the line between parental discipline and abuse, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In its 4-1 decision late Tuesday in Sophia Willis v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0707-CR-295, the state's high court established a bright-line rule on parental discipline privilege that it hasn't addressed since the adoption of the Indiana Criminal Code.

Sophia Willis was charged and convicted of battery as a Class D felony for spanking her 11-year-old son with a belt or extension cord. Marion Superior Commissioner Danielle Gaughan used her discretion to enter the judgment as a Class A misdemeanor and sentenced Willis to one year in prison with 357 days suspended to probation, which the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Willis was disciplining her son for a February 2006 incident of stealing her clothes and taking them to school to give away, which a teacher contacted her about. After sending the child away for the weekend, Willis was unable to resolve the situation and decided to use corporal punishment, attorneys said. The child reported the incident to school officials, who contacted child protective services.

In upholding the trial court's decision, the appellate judges echoed a concern that there is precious little Indiana caselaw providing guidance as to what constitutes proper and reasonable parental discipline of children, and no bright-line rule existed.

"We sympathize with Willis's argument that she is a single parent who is doing the best that she can, be we cannot condone her choice to whip her child with an extension cord to the point of causing him pain," the court wrote at the time.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer last summer and heard arguments in September. It now has vacated Willis' conviction, finding the state didn't disprove her parental discipline privilege defense.

Determining that the Model Penal Code doesn't adequately identify permissible parental conduct in disciplining children, the court relied on the Restatement (Second) of Torts in providing guidance to trial courts on establishing reasonableness of punishments and force used in these types of cases.

Some factors include the age, sex, and physical and mental condition of the child, nature of the offense and the motive, and whether that force was disproportionate to the offense or unnecessarily degrading. But the court added that this list isn't exhaustive and other factors could be taken into consideration depending on the case facts.

Comparing that guidance to Willis, the court noted that the mother had used progressive forms of punishment and that the boy had also testified the swats hurt "for a minute" but not the next day at school.

"We find nothing particularly degrading about this manner of punishment. Nor, in context, is it readily apparent that the punishment was disproportionate to the offense," Justice Robert Rucker wrote, adding that the record reflects also that the bruises weren't serious or permanent.

Justice Frank Sullivan dissented, noting how many appeals the court sees relating to child abuse where parents claim they were reasonably using force to discipline children. He wrote this is a policy change best left to the legislative and executive branches, not the judiciary.

By authorizing parents to impose "as much force as they believe is necessary ... the Court increases the quantum of effort that the State will be required to expend in its efforts to protect children from abuse. As such, the Court's opinion constitutes a change in our State's policy toward child abuse."

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