Many–perhaps even most–parents paddle, spank, or otherwise use physical force to discipline their children. This kind of discipline is generally viewed by law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and the courts as a parental prerogative and not as criminal child abuse. Yet there are limits on the degree of physical force that a parent may lawfully employ and the degree of injury a parent may lawfully inflict. A parent who acts with malice, uses grossly inappropriate force or who causes lasting injury may be prosecuted for child abuse. A recent court of appeals case demarcates the boundaries of permissible parental discipline and sets forth standards for determining when physical discipline by parents constitutes criminal child abuse.
State v. Varner. The court of appeals in State v. Varner, ___ N. C. App. ___, 796 S.E.2d 834 (2017), reversed the defendant’s conviction for misdemeanor child abuse based on the trial court’s refusal to define “moderate punishment” as punishment that does not cause lasting injury. Even though the State presented sufficient evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt, the court concluded that, due to the erroneous instructions, the jury could have convicted the defendant simply because it thought the degree of punishment was excessive, even if the jury thought the defendant was acting in good faith and did not inflict lasting injury.
Facts. The defendant, his ten-year-old son, and other family members sat down for a pizza dinner. The boy refused to eat the pizza, saying pizza made him gag. The defendant got up from the table, sat down in the living room for a moment, and then picked up a paddle. He went to the table, stood next to his son, and counted down from three. He then struck his son’s left thigh three times with the paddle. He also struck his son’s foot as his son attempted to block the blows. (At some point before striking the boy, the defendant cursed and yelled at him.)
The next morning, the boy’s thigh was bruised. He was in pain for several days. He walked with a slight limp and was not able to participate in gym class at school. After several days, the pain and bruising subsided.
The charges. The defendant was indicted for felony child abuse. G.S. 14-318.4(a) makes it a Class D felony for the parent or caregiver of a child under 16 to intentionally inflict serious injury upon the child or to intentionally commit an assault upon the child that results in serious physical injury. Serious physical injury is defined as “physical injury that causes great pain and suffering” and includes serious mental injury. G.S. 14-318.4(d).
Misdemeanor child abuse under G.S. 14-318.2, a Class A1 misdemeanor, is a lesser-included offense of felony child abuse. A parent or caregiver commits misdemeanor child abuse if he or she inflicts physical injury upon a child under 16 by other than accidental means.
The jury acquitted the defendant in Varner of felony child abuse, but found him guilty of misdemeanor child abuse.
The jury instructions. The trial court in Varner held a charge conference in which it informed the parties that it planned to advise the jury that it could not convict the defendant if it determined that his son’s physical injuries were inflicted as a result of defendant’s “moderate punishment to correct [his] child.” The trial judge further indicated that it planned to define “moderate punishment” as “punishment that does not cause lasting injury.” The State objected to this definition, and the trial court, over defendant’s objection, struck it from the instructions. The trial court told the jury that it was to determine whether the punishment moderate was “according to the facts and circumstances of the particular case and in the exercise of [their] reason and common sense.”
The law. To determine whether the trial court’s instructions were erroneous, the court of appeals examined the legal requirements for proving misdemeanor child abuse by a parent. The court explained that, notwithstanding state child abuse statutes, parents generally are permitted to inflict physical injury in the course of administering corporal discipline to their children. This exception to the letter of the child abuse statutes is necessary to acknowledge parents’ constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit. After examining case law from the 19th and early 20th centuries and synthesizing it with the modern-day definition of abuse in the state’s juvenile code, the court explained that a parent who inflicts physical injury on a child under 16 by any of the following means is subject to prosecution for child abuse:
- Administering punishment that causes or is calculated to cause an injury that is lasting or will continue indefinitely;
- Administering punishment borne of malice or wickedness of purpose rather than a good faith or honest effort to discipline the child; or
- Using cruel or grossly inappropriate procedures.
Id. at __; 796 S.E.2d at 836.
The analysis. The court of appeals concluded that there was insufficient evidence in Varner from which the jury could find that the paddling caused or was calculated to cause lasting injury. The jury was instructed that the defendant could inflict “moderate” punishment. Because that term was not defined, the jury could have interpreted moderate punishment to mean punishment that is not excessive, rather than what it actually means in this context: punishment that is not calculated to produce and does not produce lasting injury.
There was, in the court’s view, sufficient evidence from which the jury could find that the defendant acted with malice: the defendant yelled and cursed at the boy, and jurors might have deemed the paddling excessive. On the other hand, the court reasoned that the jury could have concluded the defendant did not act with malice and that the punishment was not grossly inappropriate.
Given the error in the instructions, the court could not conclude that the jury reached its conclusion based on permissible legal grounds. Therefore, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction.
Varner’s significance. Experts may frown on corporal punishment, but surveys indicate that it remains a tool of discipline for many parents. Schools, including a handful in North Carolina, likewise continue to employ physical punishment as a sanction for misconduct. Given the prevalence of physical punishment by parents and others, it is helpful to have a 21st century case explaining how the child abuse laws overlay parental prerogative. Varner clarifies that criminal child abuse statutes do not bar the use of physical discipline, but do permit prosecution of parents and caregivers who act with the wrong motivation, impose lasting physical injury or use grossly inappropriate measures.