Washington Court Reverses Judge Who Found Abuse Based on Own Beliefs, Not Law

The Washington Court of Appeals remanded the case of H.S. to juvenile court after a judge decided that H.S. had been abused and therefore was “dependent,” not based on the law, but based on the judge’s own beliefs about proper parental discipline.

H.S. suffers from cerebral palsy and has minor mental impairments. She was 16 when the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) removed her from her home, where she lived with her father and stepmother. A social worker investigated H.S.’s father for alleged assault, including slapping her on her mouth and spanking her.

The juvenile court then held a dependency hearing to determine whether H.S. was safe in the home with her father and stepmother. The hearing took place in Waterville, at the Superior Court for Douglas County.

Under Washington law, a child is dependent on the state if he or she is abused or neglected by a person who is “legally responsible for the care of the child.” RCW 13.34.030(6)(b). “Abuse or neglect” is then defined as injury that causes harm to the child’s health, welfare, or safety. RCW 26.44.020(1). However, if physical discipline is reasonable and moderate, it will not count as “abuse or neglect.”

In determining whether a parent’s physical discipline was reasonable, a court must take into consideration factors such as the child’s age, size, condition, location of injury, nature of the child’s misconduct, and the child’s developmental state.

The court of appeals found that the juvenile court did not do this in H.S.’s case. Rather, the juvenile court decided the father had abused H.S. because, the judge said, it is “unacceptable to slap or ‘pop’ a 16-year old in the mouth.” The judge stated he was not “fond” of slapping a child in the face, and that any child who is 16 should not be popped in the mouth or slapped in the face for discipline.

This opinion about proper discipline, rather than evidence that the discipline was neither reasonable nor moderate, was the judge’s primary basis for finding that H.S. was dependent.

The Court of Appeals held that, under the statute, slapping is permissible so long as it does not cause bodily harm or marks. The evidence in this case showed that while H.S. felt hurt by the slapping, she did not suffer bodily harm, long-lasting pain, or even temporary marks.

A court may not base findings on its own beliefs and substitute them for the law. Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded that the juvenile court abused its discretion and remanded the case for the juvenile court to consider all of the evidence.