by: Gina Mangieri
The Hawaii Supreme Court has ordered a new trial after an abuse conviction, saying “parental discipline” should have been allowed as a defense.
Social workers say this is not a license to beat children, and child abuse prevention advocates say even moderate corporal punishment can inflict much more than just physical harm.
The state’s highest court ordered a new trial for Cedric Kikuta, convicted of assault after he punched his 14-year-old stepson in the face and head multiple times and broke his nose.
In a 3-2 ruling, the majority said, “An instruction to the jury on the parental discipline defense must be given… no matter how weak, inconclusive, or unsatisfactory that evidence may be.”
“It almost gives parents the right like, oh, that is OK, so I can push it a little but further when I discipline my child,” said Billie Leuder, a board member of Prevent Child Abuse Hawaii. “That’s what we’re trying to stay away from.”
The court writes: “We emphasize that our holding in no way condones the use of illegal force against minors.”
But the fact that there’s any legal force allowed against children takes many by surprise Hawaii law allows parents or guardians to conduct corporal punishment if there’s regard for the age and size of the minor; if it’s reasonably related to prevention or punishment of misconduct; and if it’s not intended to cause substantial pain.
The Supreme Court ruling referred to a past case that called reasonable corporal punishment “part and parcel of the real world of parenting” and said “what parent among us can say he or she has not been angered to some degree from a child’s defiant, impudent or insolent conduct, sufficient to call for spontaneous, stern, and meaningful discipline?”
“It’s also very alarming when you see that children are getting hurt when they’re being so-called disciplined,” Lueder said.
Child advocates hope to educate parents that there are better alternatives —
“What can you do first before you even want to turn a hand on your child?” Lueder said. “Have you even tried it or given enough of a chance to do the counting, to leave the room, to do other things to redirect their behavior?”
For instance, Lueder gives this advice for dealing with a very young child’s tantrum: “It’s really looking at their basic necessities, are they hungry, are they overtired, maybe some of those things are playing into it.”
And she has these tips for dealing with testy teens: “For your preteens and teenagers, we give them so many privileges, so now it’s taking away some of those privileges and showing that there are consequences for some of your bad behavior.”
Child advocates say physical punishment can have far reaching negative effects — including mental disabilities, or a child’s abuse of animals or other people.
“There’s this linkage and this cycle of abuse that tends to happen that can be really detrimental to society,” Lueder said.
State social workers remind parents the criminal statute is different than the civil statute they abide by
“This is not a free for all,” said Cynthia Goss of the DHS Social Services Division. “This doesn’t give you a license to beat your kid. One person’s spanking may be another person’s abuse.”
“What we look at is: was there harm?” said Jon Walters, of the DHS Social Services Division. “That’s a yes or no question.”
“There is no blanket license to abuse a child under any circumstances,” the DHS spokesperson, Joe Perez, adds. “We are much less concerned with the result of any criminal proceeding as long as we have taken appropriate action to ensure the safety of the child.”
Even on the civil or social services side, consequences after physical punishment reports vary. They can range from no finding of abuse, to requiring services in the home, treatment to prevent the events from happening again or in extreme cases foster care.