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Justices will consider corporal punishment case

January 1, 2007
The Indiana Supreme Court will take up the issue of a mother's authority to discipline her child by applying corporal punishment, paving the way for justices to analyze the legal line between parental control and child battery.

Justices granted transfer Wednesday in Sophia Willis v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-06110-CR-982, which the Indiana Court of Appeals had decided May 17. Appellate judges affirmed the Marion Superior Court judgment finding sufficient evidence to convict Willis, mother of an 11-year-old, of misdemeanor child battery for spanking her son with what's described as either a belt or extension cord.

A reason detailed at trial for the February 2006 incident was that her son took a bag of women's clothing to give to a classmate at school, though a fifth-grade teacher confiscated it and notified the mother. At home, Willis used an extension cord or belt to spank him seven times - to the point of causing bruises or pain. A few days later, he reported still being sore, asked his teacher if "being whipped with an extension cord was child abuse," and requested to see the school nurse who then notified child protective services.

Willis was charged within a week for felony child battery and was convicted after a bench trial in August. Commissioner Danielle Gaughan reduced her conviction to a Class A misdemeanor and sentenced her to 365 days in jail with 357 days suspended to probation. Willis appealed on grounds that insufficient evidence existed to support her conviction.

"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, noting that it doesn't reweigh evidence and gives deference to the trial court.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals panel - Chief Judge John Baker and Judges Ezra Friedlander and Terry Crone - noted that Indiana Code section 35-41-3-1 provides a parent has the right to employ reasonable corporal punishment to discipline a child, but there are limits to that right. Appellate judges echoed a past finding that there's "precious little Indiana caselaw providing guidance as to what constitutes proper and reasonable parental discipline of children, and there are no bright-line rules." That sentiment was mentioned in Mitchell v. State, 813 N.E.2d 427 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), which held that dropping a 4-year-old to the floor and kicking him was child battery.
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