Corporal Punishment Issues Arise in Custody and Domestic Violence Cases

Maryland Divorce and Custody Attorneys know that divorcing couples often disagree on parenting issues. This may include disagreement over corporal punishment. The issue of corporal punishment can also arise in situation where the parents are in agreement.

The use of corporal punishment can become (i) a criminal charge of child abuse under Section 3-601 of Criminal Law Article, (ii) a child abuse investigation and finding by the Department of Social Services under Section 5-701 of Family Law Article (subject to appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings), (iii) a domestic violence case under Section 4-501 of the Family Law Article and (iv) an issue in a custody or visitation dispute.

When corporal punishment causes injury to the child, even if unintended, the conduct of the parent will be closely scrutinized.

In each of these types of proceedings, a parent’s conduct can have important consequences to his or her parental rights. It is important for parents who might be involved in any of these types of litigation to understand the basic concepts of child abuse and be able to discuss the issue with their Family Law Attorney.

Section 4-501 Family Law Article adopts the common law principle permitting “reasonable punishment including reasonable corporal punishment, in light of the age and condition of the child performed by a parent or step-parent of a child.” However, when corporal punishment causes injury to the child, even if unintended, it is likely that the conduct of the parent will be closely scrutinized.

There are two Maryland appeals court opinions that offer guidance in such cases. The first is Charles County Department of Social Services vs. Vann in which the Department’s finding of child abuse was upheld. In this case, a six year old was trying to evade punishment by his father who sought to strike him on the buttocks with a belt. Father had swung a rather large belt buckle at his son who attempted to evade the blows by twisting, turning and grabbing the belt. The boy’s back was injured. The Court found that it was reckless to have swung the belt buckle at the child. His evasive response meant that the blow could have landed anywhere on his body. Indeed the injuries could have been far more severe.

In Department of Human Resources vs. Howard, the Court of Special Appeals, the court reversed a finding by the Department based on inadvertent injuries to 13 year old boy’s eye. Mother intended to hit the child in the back of the head with her knuckles. He surprised her by turning his head towards her so that she struck him in the eye. Mother did not act with intent to harm the boy or with recklessness towards his safety or welfare.