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When Is Parental Discipline Too Much? Examining Adrian Peterson

Sat 2 May, 2015 / by / Family Law

Many have read lately about the Minnesota Vikings star running back, Adrian Peterson, and the allegations of child abuse against him. Meanwhile, his family members have come to Adrian’s defense, explaining that this is how Adrian was raised, and a parent should be able to discipline a child as he/she sees fit (click HERE, for example). Adrian himself has been quoted as attributing his own harsh discipline as a child (including the use of a “switch”) to his success and drive as an adult. Upbringings and rural Texas standards collide with the modern view on child discipline.

We have handled many trials on orders of protection – both defending and bringing them – involving parents who are accused of too much discipline, typically physical. The news stories on Adrian Peterson have certainly sparked a debate about how much is too much. Where is the line?

Under Illinois civil (Order of Protection) law, it seems clear to us that Adrian crossed the line. Although not a lot of orders of protection get taken up on appeal (for one thing, they expire in two years, so appeals would often take up a quarter to half of the order’s duration), some basic do-not-cross lines are still apparent.

The Domestic Violence Act defines abuse as “knowing or reckless use of physical force, confinement, or restraint.” At the same time, it specifically exempts “reasonable direction of a parent.” Why? This is because “a parent’s right to corporally punish his or her child is derived from the right of privacy, which is viewed as implicit in the United States Constitution. This right encompasses the right to care, control, and discipline one’s own children… extend[ing] to reasonable corporal punishment.” In re F.W., 261 Ill.App.3d 894, 903.

In short, you’re entitled, within reason, to teach and bring up your own kid in the way you believe is best, just like you’re allowed to do many other things in the privacy of your own home. That’s freedom.

However, the bounds of privacy fall away at certain point. If you’re using an object – really, any object – to strike a child, you probably aren’t going to get the law’s protection. The cases say the following instances were too much, and unacceptable:

– use of a two-foot-long board with protruding metal brackets (seems obvious there);

– kicking child, hitting her with hands, a plastic baseball bat, and a belt, throwing liquor in her face, and pulling her hair resulting in bruises;

– paddling was unreasonable when it was vicious or for other than disciplinary reasons, and caused red and purple bruises that were in fact a hematoma;

– a two-year-old boy was physically abused when he repeatedly was found to have bruises. On one occasion he had bruises on his head, arms, buttocks, and back. Another time he was found to have 30 to 40 small bruises under his diaper. A doctor reported that the bruises extended from the lower neck to the buttocks and appeared to be thin, parallel lines as if caused by a small stick;

– using a belt against 9-year-old boy with hyperactivity and learning disabilities, including instance when the boy received as many as one hundred strokes to his bare buttocks, resulted in the entire area of the buttocks and thighs being “solidly bruised”

On the other hand, a couple times using an object was okay, when kept within reason:

– mother’s use of wooden spoon to spank a child was not excessive corporal punishment, although it caused bruising on at least one occasion;

– punishment was not excessive when a teacher used a 12-inch ruler to spank two students on buttocks and back of legs, resulting in bruises.

Looking at the photo evidence of the alleged abuse by Adrian Peterson, the difference seems manifest between unacceptable and acceptable. Tearing a limb from a tree and causing many wounds that exist 4 days later is, in all likelihood, going to keep him in serious trouble. The public can continue to debate how a parent should be allowed to handle a child, but the law in circumstances like these is pretty clear.

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