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The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled for the first time that “reasonable force” used by parent in the discipline of their children is permissible. The justices say the force used must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor.”

The SJC ruling stems from Commonwealth vs. Dorvil, a 2011 case involving a Brockton, Massachusetts father who according to police, kicked his daughter in her backside while yelling “shut up” and then spanked her. The child was upset and crying when the police officers questioned the parents. The father claimed he was disciplining his child but was later convicted of assault and battery.

In his appeal to the Appeals Court, Dorvil argued, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction of assault and battery in light of the parental privilege to use force in disciplining a minor child. The court determined, however, that the evidence indicated that the child lacked the capacity to understand the discipline, and that the “defendant spanked his child when he was upset and angry and not in a calm and controlled manner, as required for parental discipline to fall within the reasonable force defense.”

Accordingly, the SJC held 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 minor’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.”

Also, “By requiring that the force be reasonable and reasonably related to a legitimate purpose, this approach effectively balances respect for parental decisions regarding the care and upbringing of minor children with the Commonwealth’s compelling interest in protecting children against abuse. By additionally specifying certain types of force that are invariably unreasonable, this approach clarifies the meaning of the reasonableness standard and provides guidance to courts and parents.”

The court concluded that the parental privilege defense may not be perfect but the goal is to protect the children from abuse while also safeguarding a parental right to discipline. However, “the balance will tip in favor of the protection of children from abuse inflicted in the guise of discipline.”

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