clenched fist of adult with blurry child sitting with head down in background

When does physical discipline become abuse?

Parents or guardians who choose to physically discipline their children may be concerned about whether they are at risk of being accused of abuse. The use of corporal punishment such as spanking is a hotly contested issue in the court of public opinion. Regardless of how society feels about the effectiveness or harmfulness of physical discipline, legally speaking, it is a permissible method of discipline in Washington, though not without any limitations.

Under Washington law, you are allowed to physically discipline a child as long as the discipline used is:

  • reasonable and moderate, and
  • inflicted by a parent, guardian, teacher, or another person authorized in advance by the child’s parent or guardian to use such force for purposes of restraining or correcting the child

The chapter of Washington law governing child abuse expressly states that there is no intent to interfere with child-raising practices, including reasonable parental discipline, which are not injurious to the child’s health, welfare, or safety.

While it’s helpful to know that it’s permissible to use reasonable and moderate physical discipline, you may be wondering how to determine whether the discipline you use is “reasonable and moderate.” Although there isn’t a specific definition provided for what constitutes reasonable and moderate discipline, the law does provide some guidance on what is unreasonable.

The following actions are presumed unreasonable when used to correct or restrain a child:

  • throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child;
  • striking a child with a closed fist;
  • shaking a child under age three;
  • interfering with a child’s breathing;
  • threatening a child with a deadly weapon; or
  • doing any other act that is likely to cause and which does cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks.

A judge or jury is to consider the age, size, and condition of the child and the location of the injury when determining whether the bodily harm is reasonable or moderate. Accusations of any of the abusive behaviors listed above could lead to a charge of Assault of a Child, which is a felony. Cases involving spanking that leaves bruises most often result in a less serious charge of Assault in the Fourth Degree, a gross misdemeanor.

At the Marshall Defense Firm, we advise parents who spank to do so only with their hand—no paddle, belt, or other instrument. We have seen many parents accused of excessive spanking, and in every case, the parent had used something other than a hand to strike the blows.

Another piece of practical advice: don’t cause any marks that will last more than a few minutes. Of course, it is hard to know in advance how long a mark will last. And when your child has misbehaved in a way that makes you angry, it is hard to carefully modulate the amount of force you use. So our most useful advice is to spank only with your hand, and only on the buttocks, the part of the body where you are least likely to cause an injury.

Any allegations of abuse can also trigger a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation, which, for many parents, is a fate worse than being charged with a crime. It is important to exercise caution when it comes to your use of physical discipline. Using reasonable and moderate force will not only ensure your child’s safety, but also help to prevent you from ending up in jail or on the radar of Child Protective Services.

If you find yourself facing child abuse allegations in response to how you discipline your child, the Marshall Defense Firm is here to help. Our experienced, skilled team of defense attorneys would be happy to discuss the case with you. Please contact us at 206.826.1400 or to schedule a free consultation.

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