Friday, September 09, 2005

child abuse - corporal punishment - criminal negligence standard applied

W.S. Dept. of Public Welfare - Commonwealth Court, September 9, 2005

The Court reversed DPW's finding that father had abused his daughter, as abuse is defined in the Child Protective Services Law, 23 Pa. C.S. 6301 et seq. Under the CPSL, child abuse is "any recent act or failure to act…which causes nonaccidental serious physical injury to a child under 18 years of age," 23 Pa. C.S. 6303(b)(1)(i). "Serious physical injury" is defined as an injury that "causes a child severe pain" or "significantly impairs a child's functioning, either temporarily or permanently.," 23 Pa. C.S. 6303(a)

Father hit his 14 y/o daughter on the ear with an open hand 2-3 times when she lied to him about where she had been and her report card. When she fell to the floor, he hit her again. The findings were undisputed, and DPW found both parent and child to be credible. Father had not hit the daughter before. The daughter testified that she did not complain about her ear hurting, didn’t take aspirin or anything else for pain, went to school the next day and had no problem hearing her teachers, and that she is not afraid of her father. Father was "frustrated because of his daughter's continuous misconduct and, in disciplining her, did not intend to inflict injury." The record showed and the court emphasized continuing disciplinary problems with the daughter.

Citing P.R. v. DPW, 801 A.2d 478 (Pa. 2002), the Court said that the case presented "competing objectives" which involved balancing a parent's right to discipline a child, including by corporal punishment, with the duty under the CPLS to protect children. The P.R. case established a criminal negligence standard in parental corporal punishment cases. Under that standard, there is no abuse, under the CPSL, unless there has been as "gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation."

The Court said that the "evidence…reveals that [father] slapped [his daughter] two to three times with an open hand, after numerous attempts to discipline her without resorting to physical contact. Although the slapping resulted in a temporary loss of hearing, [father's] conduct did not rise to the level of criminal negligence and cannot be viewed as a gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable parent would observe in the same situation….[The father] maintained self-control by walking away from the situation after he made physical contact with her the second or third time. The fact that [the daughter] experienced a temporary hearing loss does not allow us to presuppose an unjustificable risk that would lead to the finding of criminal negligence. The injury [the daughter] received as a result of corporal punishment was an accident, and a 'regrettable result of corporal punishment' rather than abuse."

Donald Marritz, staff attorney
MidPenn Legal Services - Gettysburg