Are you being investigated, or have you been arrested for child abuse for spanking or similarly disciplining your child in Florida? If so, you may be able to use Florida’s child discipline defense to get the investigation terminated or your charges reduced or dropped. Whether the defense applies to your particular situation will depend upon both the manner in which, and why, you disciplined our child.
In child abuse cases involving knowingly or willfully abusing a child without causing great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement, the crime can be charged as a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years and a $1,000 fine.
Florida Statute section 827.03 (b) requires the State must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt to charge you with the crime of child abuse. First, the alleged victim must be under the age of 18. Secondly, the prosecutor must prove you did one of the following acts:
- intentionally inflicted physical or mental injury upon the alleged victim;
- committed an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury to the alleged victim; or
- actively encouraged another person to commit an act that resulted in or could reasonably have been expected to result in physical or mental injury to the victim.
Many people are familiar with the biblical admonition that sparing the rod spoils the child. And, following that advice, many parents spank their children as a form of punishment and discipline. Depending on the circumstances, however, spanking your child can put you at risk of being investigated for child abuse.
The general consensus among law enforcement, child protective services, and the State Attorney’s Office is that if spanking your child as a form of discipline left a mark / bruise anywhere other than their buttocks, then the act may constitute child abuse under Florida law.
Florida common law recognizes a parent’s right to discipline his or her child in a “reasonable manner.” Raford v. State, 828 So.2d 1012, 1015, n. 5 (Fla .2002). In both civil and criminal child abuse proceedings, a parent’s right to administer reasonable and non-excessive corporal punishment to discipline their children is legislatively recognized. § 39.01(2), Fla. Stat. (2010) (“Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or legal custodian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.”); § 984.03(2), Fla. Stat. (2011) (containing a virtually identical exception to the definition of “abuse”).
In Raford, the Florida Supreme Court held while the parental privilege to use corporal discipline does not provide absolute immunity to charges of child abuse under section 827.03, it may be asserted as an affirmative defense to criminal child abuse charges. Raford; 828 So.2d at 1020. The Raford court expressly recognized “a typical spanking” as “reasonable” or “non-excessive corporal punishment.” Id.
Consistent with Florida’s child abuse statutory scheme, and pursuant to the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Raford, if you’re charged with child abuse under 827.03(1), you may raise as an affirmative defense the parental privilege to use corporal punishment. To do so, you must show:
- you are the parent of the child or one who stands in loco parentis (i.e. in place of a parent);
- your actions constituted corporal punishment; and
- the corporal punishment utilized was reasonable or not excessive.
A review of some Florida cases demonstrates the circumstances under which a spanking may fall either within or outside the parental privilege defense to a charge of child abuse. An example of permitted punishment is found in G.C. v. R.S., 71 So.3d 164 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011). There, K.C. age fourteen, was being disagreeable both before dinner and at the dinner table. Her father described K.C.’s behavior as disrespectful and defiant, while K.C. described her attitude as sarcastic.
When K.C. continued to talk back, her father told her to stand up. He then took her arm and spanked her once on the buttocks with his hand. K.C. did not notice any marks on her buttocks, although she did have a red mark on her arm. In analyzing the father’s conduct, the court concluded that, as a matter of law, it constituted reasonable parental discipline.
Other permitted child discipline was found in J.C. v. Dept. Children Families, 773 So.2d 1220 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000). There, a step-father spanked his 11 year old stepson with a belt which left a minor bruise on his buttocks. The Court determined the stepfather’s actions constituted permissible discipline within the parental privilege. Id. at 1221-22.
An example of a spanking falling outside the parental priviledge occurred in J.L. v. Department of Children Families, 899 So.2d 1254 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005). In J.L., the father beat the child five times with a belt and, later the same day, the father’s girlfriend beat the child three more times. The child was naked during both incidents. The father relied on J.C. in arguing the corporal punishment was not excessive. The court rejected the father’s position, noting in J.C., the child was dressed and was only hit once with a belt.
Hall v. State, 260 So.3d 1152 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018), is another parental discipline case falling outside the parental privilege. There Appellant and the child’s mother got into an argument in the car. Appellant’s son, who was also in the car, tried to prevent Appellant from hitting his mother. Upon arrival at the house, Appellant snatched the child out of the car, took him into the house, and gave him “a few licks” with his belt. The belt broke the child’s skin causing him to bleed and left marks that were visible several days later.
Appellant was convicted of felony child abuse. On appeal, he contended his actions fell within the parental discipline defense. The appellate court disagreed and affirmed Appellant’s conviction. In doing so, the court noted there was no evidence the child committed any misbehavior that would arguably justify discipline. Rather, the court found the undisputed evidence showed the child was whipped in retaliation for attempting to prevent Appellant from hitting his mother in the car. The court found the parental-discipline affirmative defense affords no protection to a charge of child abuse under those circumstances.
Parents in Florida may discipline their children using reasonable physical punishment. The case law provides some guidance as to what is reasonable. You’re permitted to spank your child on the buttocks with your hand while they’re clothed as long as it doesn’t leave any marks, or if it does leave marks they are not significant.
Although riskier than using your hand, you’re also permitted to use a belt in disciplining your child. You just can’t leave any significant marks and you can’t injure you child to the extent they would require medical treatment. And, regardless of whether you use your hand, a belt or a paddle, if you spank your child it has to be in response to misbehavior, and not out of general anger or retaliation to come within the parental discipline privilege.
If you are under investigation or were arrested for child abuse for disciplining your child, you should consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable about established law potentially providing you a defense to your charges. Doing so will give you the best chance of having your child abuse charges dropped or reduced. Call me for a free case strategy session to discuss how I can best help you with your child abuse case in Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Macclenny, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, St. Augustine or surrounding areas.