By Keith Gushard
Republican state Rep. Scott Petri vividly remembers how, as a child, he would occasionally witness the beatings suffered by a 10-year-old developmentally disabled neighbor.
“All it would take is his mom would say, ‘I’m going to get your father’s belt,’” Petri of Bucks County said, and the boy would run around the yard grabbing handfuls of dirt and begin shoving the dirt into his mouth.
Petri said he never observed corporal discipline that he considered abuse, but it seemed clear enough that the beatings had left the neighbor boy traumatized.
It is this image that still haunts him now as Petri seeks to guide a bill into law that will update Pennsylvania’s definition of child abuse including how the law should spell out the rights of parents to use force to punish their children. Even though most child development experts say there is no reason for a parent to strike a child, lawmakers are unwilling to completely bar corporal punishment and they are tying themselves into knots trying to figure out where do draw the line between a legal spanking and an illegal beating.
“That could bog us down,” Petri said.
Corporal punishment by parents is legal in all U.S. states, though most states use terms like “moderate” and “reasonable” as standards for describing what is permissible. Corporal punishment has been banned entirely in 33 countries, according to the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children.
The Task Force of Child Protection created in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse coverup recommended that the use of force for disciplinary purposes be allowed as long as the contact is “incidental, minor or reasonable,” or is needed to take a weapon from the child, stop a fight or in the act of self-defense.
Petri’s bill replaces the task force’s language with terms intended to provide flexibility so that the reasonableness of the corporal punishment can be judged based on the victim’s age or mental development.
But Petri’s bid for flexibility has medical professionals and advocates worried that, in practice, it will force doctors to make legal determinations rather than simply trying to decide if a child’s injuries meet specific standards, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee in Bernville.
The task force members heard testimony from caseworkers and medical professionals who described the crippling challenges they face in trying to quantify how much pain young children suffered or whether the parents intended to injure the children.
Petri’s bill explicitly protect the rights of parents to use corporal punishment to correct a “child’s misconduct.”
“It’s a hard, hard issue and we are behind the eight-ball,” Petri said. “But we’ve been behind the eight-ball for years on this.”
Petri said he has been frustrated that efforts to tackle the issue have long been ignored in Harrisburg, largely, he feels, because of biases that the problems of child abuse are concentrated in urban areas.
“I had a fellow lawmaker tell me that those type of things only happen in cesspools like Philadelphia,” Petri said.
Advocates have identified 15 cases in the last five years in which welfare agencies had received reports of inappropriate use of discipline before the children were killed or suffered near-fatal injuries.
One of those episodes transpired in Bucks County in which a 3-year-old girl was brought to the hospital with injuries that were blamed on a “fall out of bed.” Doctors determined that the child’s injuries — inter-cranial bleeding, a broken occipital bone, retinal hemorrhaging, and bruising to back and extremities — did not match that account. In that case, Children and Youth had received three prior reports that the father or his paramour had employed “inappropriate discipline,” but in caseworkers said they did not find any evidence to support the previous complaints and had closed the case.
The challenge is that parents who employ physical punishment often need assistance to develop better strategies for dealing with their children. Petri said that he hopes the state can eventually develop a “clearinghouse” to triage cases so that parents guilty of abuse are handled appropriately, while parents who just need help can get it, Petri said.
A public hearing on Senate legislation crafted in response to the Child Protection Task Force’s recommendations is Tuesday. A hearing on Petri’s bill will be held April 18.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.