Should a Parent Spank a Child in California?

Father (F) and Mother (M) were married in Texas in 2009 when he was 16 years old and she was 18. In 2011, at the ripe old ages of 18 and 20, they had their daughter A. Shortly thereafter they moved to California.

On August 3, 2013, a neighbor called 911 to report a child being abused. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies responded to the call and discovered two-year-old A with two six-inch long welts on her right leg and more bruises on her buttocks. F admitted hitting A with his belt because she refused to behave. He was merely disciplining her in the same manner that his parents had disciplined him. Although he only meant to spank A on her behind, while he was spanking her, she moved and he hit her leg. He did not intend to hit her leg.

He told the deputies that he had to discipline A physically when his attempts to talk to her to get her behave were unsuccessful. The deputies arrested him and, as per state law, an investigation was opened by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to determine the best interests and safe welfare of A.

The case to determine the best interests of the child were heard in Juvenile Court. There, the judge temporarily removed F from the family home, allowed A to remain with M, ordered F to have monitored twice-weekly visitation of A, and requested DCFS begin reunification services of the family.

In the following weeks, during the continued DCFS investigation, F began reading a parenting book and told the investigators that he now understood why his behavior toward A was inappropriate and how he should discipline his daughter properly. M told the investigators that she thought spanking was wrong, and had she seen F spank A, she would have stopped him. Neighbors and other family members described the family as very loving with no indication that any violence existed. Further investigation showed no other domestic violence incidences, no criminal history, no substance abuse nor medical or mental illness of either F or M.

In the follow-up Juvenile Court appearance, even though the judge read the DCFS investigative report, he ordered F attend 52 weeks of parenting classes, continue with the monitored visitation of A and remain away from the family home. F appealed arguing that there was no clear and convincing evidence of a substantial danger to A either to her physical health/safety or wellbeing and that there was other reasonable means of protecting her,

The Appellate Court agreed with F. Although the law allows authorities to act when there is probable cause that a child's welfare as at risk, the standard for permanent action is much higher. The standard is whether the evidence is clear as to leave no substantial doubt that the child's welfare is at risk.

In this case, one act of abuse – without more is not enough to meet the higher standard and F was allowed to return to the family home with continued monitoring by DCFS.

In California, there is no specific law preventing spanking as a form of discipline for a child, but the law will step in if the child's welfare is at stake.

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