April 2015Volume 27Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

When does corporal punishment become excessive?

The debate on whether corporal punishment is an effective and ethical tool to use in raising children has continued for decades. The modern trend is to discourage this type of punishment. Recent events, such as the very public debate over Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s use of corporal punishment to discipline his son, illustrate the extent to which this parenting method has a negative connotation in our society. Well-meaning people can reasonably disagree on its merits.

A person’s view on this topic is shaped by many factors. These factors may include a personal situation in which an individual experienced corporal punishment administered by a parent, or the tenets of a religious belief that support the use of corporal punishment. Regardless of our personal position on corporal punishment, the Appellate Court, in In re F.W., clearly states that a parent has a “right” to administer corporal punishment based on the parent’s right to privacy in determining how they will raise their child. In re F.W., 261 Ill.App.3d 894, 898, 634 N.E.2d 1123, 1126 (Ill. App. Ct. 4th Dist. 1994).

This article will analyze what the courts in Illinois deem to be excessive corporal punishment. There is a statutory limitation upon a parent’s right to use corporal punishment to discipline their child. 705 ILCS 405/2-3(2)(v) states that a child can be found to be abused if they are the victim of “excessive corporal punishment.” However, the statute does not elaborate on what constitutes excessive corporal punishment. This is due to the fact that the court is mandated to consider the best interest of the child based upon the specific fact scenario of each case.

Thus, it becomes necessary to consider what conduct the case law has determined to exceed reasonable standards in order to determine what constitutes excessive corporal punishment. Although each case is considered on an individual basis, the court often uses similar factors to determine if the punishment crosses the threshold and is deemed excessive. The court will consider the following factors:

1. The amount of damage inflicted: cuts, bruises, welts, and fractures.

2. The demeanor of the child: whether the child exhibits anger or violent tendencies, or whether he or she demonstrates signs of psychological issues that can be attributed to the corporal punishment received.

3. The area of the body being affected: for example, a spanking to the buttocks will be assessed in a different manner than a slap to the face.

4. The likelihood of further instances of punishment that would exceed the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable.

5. The danger to the child of further bodily harm or mental trauma.

6. The age of the child.

7. The purpose of the punishment: whether it was for correcting misconduct by the child, teaching a lesson, or done in anger.

8. General reasonableness standards—that is, within the bounds of reasonableness and humanity.

The court will weigh each of these factors and any other information relevant to the particular case and then make its final determination. In re F.W., 261 Ill.App.3d 894, 903, 634 N.E.2d 1123, 1128-1129 (Ill. App. Ct. 4th Dist. 1998); In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 991, 1002-1006, 692 N.E.2d 338, 344-47 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1998); People v. Tomlianovich, 161 Ill.App.3d 241, 242-43, 514 N.E.2d 203, 204 (Ill. App. Ct. 3d Dist. 1987), In re B.H., 389 Ill.App.3d 316, 319-320, 905 N.E.2d 893, 896-897 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2009); In Interest of L.M., 189 Ill.App.3d 392, 398, 545 N.E.2d 319, 324 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1989); In Interest of D. M. C., 107 Ill.App.3d 902, 905, 438 N.E.2d 254, 257 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th Dist. 1982).

Unfortunately, in many instances the punishment used by the parents so far exceeds the realm of reasonable behavior that the courts of review rarely have the opportunity to consider cases where the action in question could reasonably be determined to be non-excessive. However, the court has made several rulings that help define where that line exists and when the punishment that has occurred meets a standard for excessive corporal discipline.

In In the Interest of L.M., the court made the determination that the mother inflicted excessive corporal punishment on her two sons, aged seven and nine. In that instance, the abuse was reported by the father. The children had been left unattended by the mother for over a day. Both boys were dirty and both were suffering from colds. In Interest of L.M., 189 Ill.App.3d 394 - 95. Although each of these factors was important, the court determined that significant emphasis should be placed on the fact that one of the boys had at least five whip marks on his back that were scabbed over and healing. The marks were the result of a whipping, administered by the mother, for playing ball in the house. Equally significant was the psychological evaluation of the mother and the expert testimony that confirmed she was unable to perceive when she was behaving in an overly-aggressive manner. These factors combined led the court to a determine that the punishment was excessive in this particular case, and it could be reasonably believed that the mother was likely to cause such harm in the future. In Interest of L.M., 189 Ill.App.3d 401.

Another case that helps determine the line between corporal punishment that is protected and that which is excessive is In re B. H. In this case, the mother of a fifteen year old girl became upset when the girl did not complete the chores she was given. The girl was told that she was not allowed to have dinner with the family. In turn, the girl became upset, packed her bags, and threatened to leave the house. This prompted the mother to pursue the girl to her room where a physical altercation occurred. During the altercation, the mother bit and scratched the girl’s face and chest. The girl left the home and received medical treatment for the injuries. In re B.H., 389 Ill.App.3d 318. In this instance, the court determined that the punishment handed out was excessive. This case was unique in that the mother claimed that the injuries were the result of the physical altercation and not related to her intent to discipline her child. The court did not agree with this argument and concluded that the fight was a direct result of the discipline the mother attempted to administer when she banned the girl from dinner. In re B.H., 389 Ill.App.3d 320. The court also gave special consideration to the manner in which the mother disciplined the girl. The court noted that the mother was enraged and lashed out as opposed to calmly administering punishment. Finally, the court noted that the girl was unhappy and thus clearly suffered a negative impact from the use of excessive corporal punishment. In re B.H., 389 Ill. App.3d 320.

The court has found in some cases that even if the corporal punishment exceeds the norm it does not meet a standard for being excessive. In In Interest of J. P. the court concluded that a mother’s use of a paddle--in this case a 12 inch wooden spoon, which the mother referred to as ‘the rod”--to discipline her child was not excessive corporal punishment. In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 1001. In this case, the mother repeatedly used the wooden spoon to discipline her child. The child reported the mother’s actions during a visitation with the father when an oar from a boat caused a fearful reaction based upon the punishment previously administered by the mother. In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 994 - 996. The court found that the mother used “the rod” as often as two to three times a week. On one occasion, the force of the paddling caused bruising. The distinguishing factors in this case were the child’s disposition, the mother’s intent, the mother’s demeanor while administering the punishment, and her remorse on the one occasion when the bruising occurred. In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 1004 - 1005. The child seemed happy and well-adjusted, and reportedly had a good relationship with the mother. The mother called the time in which she went to retrieve the spoon her “cooling down period.” She always administered the punishment in a calm fashion and discussed it with the child afterwards. On the occasion when the bruising occurred, it was a small bruise and the mother notified the child’s babysitter and the child’s father. Neither of whom considered the bruise to be of major concern. The court reviewed all of this information on a continuum of one to 100, where anything over the level of 65 was deemed excessive. In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 1001. The factors that were considered as negative factors in the mother’s use of corporal punishment included her decision to employ the wooden spoon while administering punishment, the bruising, the frequency of the punishment, and the mother’s reluctance to discontinue inflicting corporal punishment based on religious beliefs regarding its use. However, the positive factors that were considered as part of the continuum analysis lead the court to determine that the corporal punishment was not excessive. In Interest of J.P., 294 Ill.App.3d 1004 - 1005.

Illinois courts have clearly determined that parents do have the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children despite the debate that continues to surround its use. The courts in Illinois have also determined that the evidence and fact scenario in each case must be considered in determining whether excessive corporal punishment occurred. The punishment employed must always be weighed against the best interests of the child. The court gives special weight to the nature of the injury caused by the punishment, the frequency and manner in which the corporal punishment is delivered, the child’s happiness and mental state, and the likelihood that the child will be in further danger of injury in the custody of the parent.

Corporal punishment is a controversial and perplexing area of the law based on our personal perceptions and, for many people, an inability to view the use of corporal punishment objectively. For most people, an objective analysis of what is considered acceptable and within the scope of the law regarding the use of corporal punishment becomes an insurmountable challenge when we believe that those who are at risk are those we view as most vulnerable in society--children.

However, when the cases cited in this article are viewed individually, as the court has determined that they should be, the specific facts and circumstances of each case provide the context for the courts to determine what constitutes excessive corporal discipline. Ultimately, the court must consider a parent’s right to privacy in determining how they will raise their child within the context of the law, weigh all the factors, and then apply the law against the ultimate consideration that governs the decisions, which is the health and well-being of each child. ■

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