Legal Right to Physically Discipline One's Children:

An interesting 4-to-1 decision from the Indiana Supreme Court. Here are the facts:

Sophia Willis is a single mother raising her eleven-year-old son, J.J., who has a history of untruthfulness and taking property belonging to others. The events at issue in this case began at an elementary school Friday, February 3, 2006. On that date J.J.'s fifth grade teacher, Ms. McCuen, saw J.J. giving a bag of women's clothing to a classmate. Finding this to be an "odd exchange," Ms. McCuen contacted J.J.'s mother. Willis met with Ms. McCuen and identified the clothing as hers.

Experiencing ongoing disciplinary problems with J.J., Willis sent him to her sister's home over the next two days to ponder her options. When J.J. returned on Sunday Willis had a long conversation with her son and questioned him about his conduct. J.J. denied taking the clothing and instead concocted a story that shifted blame to other students. Willis warned that if he did not tell the truth he would be punished. J.J. again gave the same story. In response Willis instructed J.J. to remove his pants and place his hands on the upper bunk bed. J.J. complied, and Willis proceeded to strike him five to seven times with either a belt or an extension cord. [Footnote: The evidence on this point is in conflict.] Although trying to swat J.J. on the buttocks, his attempt to avoid the swats resulted in some of them landing on his arm and thigh leaving bruises. J.J. testified that during this exchange his mother was "mad." Tr. at 9. Willis countered that she was not angry but "disappointed."

The following Monday J.J. returned from gym class and asked to see the school nurse. Showing the nurse the bruises, J.J. told her that he received a "whooping" from his mother "[b]ecause I had took some clothes and I had lied." The nurse contacted child protective services that in turn contacted the Indianapolis Police Department.

Willis was tried in a bench trial for felony child battery; the judge convicted her, but exercised his discretion to treat the crime as a misdemeanor, and sentenced Willis to eight days in jail plus 357 days probation.

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The court agreed with lower courts that the "legal authority" defense recognized by an Indiana statute covered reasonable corporal punishment of a minor, and tried to clarify the scope of the defense:

[We adopt the Restatement (Second) of Torts view:] "A parent is privileged to apply such reasonable force or to impose such reasonable confinement upon his [or her] child as he [or she] reasonably believes to be necessary for its proper control, training, or education....
In determining whether force or confinement is reasonable for the control, training, or education of a child, the following factors are to be considered:
(a) whether the actor is a parent;
(b) the age, sex, and physical and mental condition of the child;
(c) the nature of his offense and his apparent motive;
(d) the influence of his example upon other children of the same family or group;
(e) whether the force or confinement is reasonably necessary and appropriate to compel obedience to a proper command;
(f) whether it is disproportionate to the offense, unnecessarily degrading, or likely to cause serious or permanent harm.
We hasten to add that this list is not exhaustive. There may be other factors unique to a particular case that should be taken into consideration. And obviously, not all of the listed factors may be relevant or applicable in every case. But in either event they should be balanced against each other, giving appropriate weight as the circumstances dictate, in determining whether the force is reasonable....

Thus, to sustain a conviction for battery where a claim of parental privilege has been asserted, the State must prove that either: (1) the force the parent used was unreasonable or (2) the parent's belief that such force was necessary to control her child and prevent misconduct was unreasonable.

The court then went on to apply the factors and conclude that the force used was reasonable, because (1) J.J. was eleven (rather than younger), (2) "most parents would likely consider as serious their eleven-year-old child's behavior in being untruthful and taking property of others" and "a parent might consider that such behavior could set the stage for more aberrant behavior later in life" (especially where, as here, the child was already "not a first offender"), (3) Willis "used progressive forms of discipline," including "send[ing] J.J. to his room, ground[ing] him, [and] withhold[ing] privileges such as television, games, and time spent outdoors," and swatted him with the belt or electric cord only when these had failed, and (4) the punishment wasn't degrading, likely to be seriously harmful, or disproportionate to the offense.

In any case, an interesting case on a difficult legal question. I'm not sure how helpful the test the court announces will be, but I'm not sure how the court could have done better.