What exactly constitutes “child abuse”? I’m sure the typical scenario played out in your head is a possible broken family, living in a messy squalid apartment, where the mom doesn’t feed the children or buy them new clothes and dad beats them with a belt and locks them in a closet. Of course, while situations like this do unfortunately occur, “child abuse” may also encompass broader, and sometimes less obvious or definite, circumstances.
In class this past week, we received a fact pattern about a working mother with three children, the oldest of whom is 12-years-old, whose one child goes to school without a lunch most days, with holes in his shoes, and wearing the same clothes for days in a row. As well, the oldest son would often be in charge of supervising his younger 3 siblings while his mother was away, and during one unsupervised moment, one of her children fell off the bed and broke his arm. Our prompt asked us to decide if this constitutes child abuse or not.
Sure, this scenario sounds like the mother needs to get her act together and start taking care of her children in a way that is more socially acceptable. But each family’s set of circumstances is different and each family’s dynamic is unique. Parents have different ways of dealing with their children and different methods of punishment. So who is a judge to determine in these “border line” child abuse cases the difference between actual abuse and just bad parenting? Should children be taken from their home because their mother needs a lesson from “Parenting 101: Providing the Basic Essentials and Support to Raise a Child Properly”? I think there is great difficulty for judges to peer into a household, take only a glimpse of what is going on, and take away their independent power of choice and make life altering decisions for them. No one, even if you think you can pick out the “bad” parents from the “good” ones, actually wants this job.
I was thinking about this when I read about two possible abuse cases in the ABA Journal this week. In one case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that slapping a child and taking part of her earrings to pay for the cable bill does not constitute the daughter’s removal from the home. My initial thought from this was “wait, they have cable?!” Of course, while I neither advocate for hitting a child nor believe a parent should auction off her child’s belonging to pay for arguably nonessential bills, I agree that this does not constitute “abuse” so extreme as to warrant the child’s removal from the home.
However, another story abuse caught my eye that is slightly more disturbing. A mother from Alaska punishes her 7-year-old adopted son when he lies by making him eat hot sauce and take a cold shower. While this, in and of itself, may seem a little harsh but not life-threatening or even physically damaging, the concern comes in when the mother video-taped the punishment, where you can hear her son screaming in the cold shower. She sent it to the Dr. Phil show to get help with disciplining her child. The video was unleashed and played on talk shows and across the Internet, resulting in criminal charges. The mother is due back in court in March, while the child remains in her care.
There are so many thoughts running through my head on this one: (1) parents, don’t tape punishment of your children, no matter how justified you think it is or how desperate you are for help and (2) this child is SEVEN-years-old. What out-of-control things is he doing that you can’t handle? It is hard not to judge in these situations, and I can only imagine how hard being a parent must be, but then again – she did cause the video to go viral. But does this constitute child abuse? That is yet to be determined.