The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court takes a Stand on Punishing Children

There will always be a divide as to whether or not a child should be disciplined and what that discipline should be. That being said, the Supreme Judicial Court (“Court”) has now stepped forward and said that parents do have a right to discipline their children.

In a ruling that came from the Court today in Commonwealth v. Dorvil, it is clear that Massachusetts recognizes a “parental privilege defense.” With this new case law, what does it mean for parents rights to rear their children and for a child’s protection against abuse?

The Court noted that the United States Constitution protects “the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children in their control.” The Court also went into great detail about how people will differ on what types of punishments are permissible, particularly the use of force such as spanking. The Court then stated “[n]otwithstanding these contrary views and disputes as to the efficacy of such parenting techniques, the long-standing and widespread acceptance of such punishment remains firmly woven into our nation’s social fabric. It follows that we must guard against the imposition of criminal sanctions for the use of parenting techniques still widely regarded as permissible and warranted.”

All that being said, the State still clearly has in interest in protecting children from abuse and the Court has developed a balancing test to determine what is acceptable and what is not. The Court stated, “that a parent or guardian may not be subjected to criminal liability for the use of force against a minor child under the care and supervision of the parent or guardian, provided that (1) the force used against the minor child is reasonable; (2) the force is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the child’s misconduct; and (3) the force used neither causes nor creates a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation or severe mental distress.”

This ruling today does not; however, give parent the right to abuse their children, and in fact, if an individual is charged with assault and battery against a minor, the jury “may consider, among other factors, the child’s age, the physical and mental condition of the child, and the nature of the child’s offense.” This will all be decided through what is known as an objective standard, meaning, would a reasonable person punish in this manner.

The Court’s decision today will certainly open the door for interpretation as to what is reasonable for disciplining a child and what is not. So while today’s ruling does definitively state that there is a parental privilege to disciplining a child, one thing is clear; what society deems as reasonable punishment for a child’s offense will vary from case to case. However, the Court concluded by saying that when there is a close call “the balance will tip in favor of the protection of children from abuse inflicted in the guise of discipline.”

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