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Breaking News: Proper Parental Discipline, Abuse, Or Criminal Act? The Unknown Limits On The Parental Discipline Privilege!

Indiana recognizes a parental discipline privilege, which gives a parent legal authority to apply reasonable force upon their child as the parent reasonably believes necessary for proper control, training, or education. While a controversial subject in the legal and psychological areas nationally, Indiana parents have what is known in criminal law as the “parental discipline privilege”. In blunt terms, parents have the legal right to spank their children. However, this is not an absolute right, and Indiana trial and appellate courts have tackled the issue of parental discipline in several cases; they have yet to come up with a clear rule of what act crosses the line. When the line is crossed, the children become children in need of services because of parental abuse and the parent may be charged with crimes, such as battery. If you are a parent, you should be aware of a new appellate ruling and other recent cases, so you know approximately where that line is drawn. But know the national trend is against physical punishment. This blog explores this new case and other cases, so you know your general limits as a parent and avoid a CHINS investigation (and potential removal of your children from your care) or criminal charge (and conviction of a felony).

This month, the Court of Appeals decided a key case where a father, Mr. Fernanders, used a belt on bare buttocks of his six-year-old daughter, A.F.1 In Fernanders, the father was convicted of felony battery for this spanking as an unreasonable use of force. The punishment related to the child’s pattern of speaking out of turn at school. The next day, A.F. stayed with someone else. At bath time, bruises were observed on A.F.’s buttocks and leg. The police were called, and Fernanders was charged with felony battery of his child. At trial, Fernanders admitted to spanking A.F., but claimed the parental privilege to discipline her in this way. The jury convicted Fernanders. He appealed. The Indiana Courts affirmed the jury and found A.F.’s punishment to be unreasonable given the reason for the punishment and the resulting pain and bruising to the child from the punishment.

However, in 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed a mother’s conviction for battery on her eleven-year-old son. In this case, mother spanked her son for stealing her clothes and giving them away at school. She left bruises on the child that remained the next day. The trial court convicted the mother of misdemeanor battery, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction as in this case. However, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the mother’s conviction finding that the mother was addressing a pattern of dishonesty from the child and that the bruises were not serious or permanent and did not require medical attention. Thus, the parental privilege to discipline her child was an affirmative defense to battery.

Also, in another appellate case where the State sought to terminate a mother’s rights for battery on a child, the Indiana Court of Appeals found that a single incident of harsh corporal punishment was insufficient to terminate the mother’s rights. In that case, the mother spanked her five-year-old son with a belt, causing welts to the child. The trial court found that the severity of the incident was cause for termination of parental rights, but the Appellate Court disagreed. This may mean the fundamental right to raise your children is given higher constitutional protection, but nevertheless, a parent may be convicted for battery where his or her punishment of a child is unreasonable. Clearly, multiple convictions over time could rise to a termination of a parent’s legal right to his or her children.

In all these cases, Indiana’s higher Courts acknowledged the difficulty of evaluating whether a parent’s discipline of a child is reasonable such that the parental discipline privilege should bar conviction for what would otherwise be battery. However, unless the Fernanders case is accepted by the Supreme Court and reversed, the parental privilege (what would otherwise be battery but excused or allowed as such to avoid criminal conviction) to use corporal punishment appears to be weakening in Indiana (as it is nationally or has been rejected). As it stands, there is no certainty as to whether corporal punishment will lead to investigation by the Indiana Department of Child Services for abuse and/or a criminal charge for battery. Thus, you should carefully consider how and why you discipline your child. If you find yourself considering using physical punishment, it must be reasonable and limited. Where the State does get involved by a DCS inquiry and/or request for interview or statement by police, you should seek counsel immediately to protect your criminal rights and mitigate the risk of your child(ren) being removed from your care.

Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. attorneys handle all types of domestic cases, including CHINS cases, termination of parental rights, as well as criminal defense. This blog is written for general informational purposes. We hope it helps you be a more informed parent, member of our society and engaged in the legal system that we all must abide by. This blog is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.

  1. Joseph B. Fernanders, III v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-812.

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