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Posted on Mar 11 on 2014

After the recent 6th District Court of Appeal Case, Gonzalez v. Santa Clara County Department of Social Services, one might ask what the state of the law is as it stands today in California. The issue raised is not an issue of morals or the impact of spanking on a child, but the question of the legality of spanking in California.

The Gonzalez case avoided determining whether a mother acted reasonably and legally when she struck her daughter with a wooden spoon, with enough force to leave bruises. Veronica Gonzalez’s 12 year old daughter had stopped doing her schoolwork and had lied to her parents numerous times about her friends and school. As a result, Veronica Gonzalez and her husband decided that spanking was the only punishment that would change their daughter’s behavior. Veronica’s husband had been the primary one to impose the punishment, but on the evening in which he was not present, Veronica decided to swat her daughter with a wooden spoon. School officials later learned of the incident after Veronica’s daughter told her friends what had happened.

The court has said that Veronica Gonzalez should not be labeled a child abuser, ruling that the social workers and judges must consider a parent’s right to impose “reasonable discipline” on a child.

California law permits spanking.

The California Penal Code punishes the act of physically injuring or imposing cruel physical punishment on a child, more commonly referred to as child abuse. However, in California, parents are allowed to use “reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks” as long as there is no serious physical injury to the child.

The court has held that parents have the legal right to inflict “reasonable” corporal punishment to discipline one’s child. However, the court has also warned, “corporal punishment is unjustifiable when it is not warranted by the circumstances, i.e., not necessary, or when the punishment, although warranted, was excessive.”

If corporal punishment crosses the line, the parent inflicting the corporal punishment is subject to being restrained under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act. Significant implications in a custody proceeding may result if this occurs. Clearly, if a restraining order is issued as a result of unlawful corporal punishment, the court must consider this history of abuse when making a custody determination. The more problematic question is whether or not the court can consider the appropriate use of corporal punishment in making a custody determination. Parents must decide if the use of lawful corporal punishment is a necessary part of parenting his or her child, and worth the risk that it might be interpreted as unjustifiable. Physical punishment can easily escalate and cross the line from “reasonable” to excessive. As litigation arises over this issue, a parent must weigh the consequences of exercising his or her right against the cost of pursuing the issue in court.

– Sarah Rosenblatt