CHILD ABUSE: Discipline vs. Criminal Behavior

CHILD ABUSE: Discipline vs. Criminal Behavior


The recent news of NFL star Adrian Peterson’s indictment on child abuse charges, has produced no shortage of passionate reactions. Not surprisingly, most reactions come from a personal or anecdotal perspective. Using a switch to discipline a child may be abhorable behavior to one person, while perfectly acceptable to another.

The intimate, personal, and subjective nature of child discipline does not easily fit into our usually objective American legal system.  Like the issue of obscenity, when it comes to pornography,  the line between child discipline and criminal behavior is often met with the “I’ll know it, when I see it” approach. As someone fortunate enough to represent individuals in a court of law, the prospect of wading into such murky waters makes me incredibly anxious.

According to Florida Statue 39.01(2) the legal definition of child abuse is as follows, “Abuse means any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired. Abuse of a child includes acts or omissions.”

The Florida legislature certainly knew the language they chose resulted in a very broad net in regards to abuse. As a result, they included some very important additional language regarding child discipline. “Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or legal guardian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.”

In sum, Florida’s test between discipline and criminal behavior hinges on whether the discipline results in harm to the child. Harm is certainly not the most objective word, but it does give a frame work to apply the facts of each case. As for Adrian Peterson, the jury is still out. The legal process has just begun and most likely will continue for at least a period of months as the state and defense prepare their cases. Stay tuned for updates regarding the status of his charge.

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