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Discipline versus abuse defined in Massachusetts

If you are getting a divorce and believe that your child is at risk of abuse if he or she is left with your soon-to-be-ex spouse, you may request custody and point out abuse, in particular, as a reason. Under the law, what is abuse? Spanking a child simply won't be enough to get a court in Massachusetts to agree to the request you've made, especially if no long-term physical harm was caused.

Why is that? A recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court has stated that it will not hold parents criminally liable for the use of reasonable force against their children. The force used must be for the purpose of keeping a child safe; for instance, spanking a child who disobeys and tries to put his or her finger in an outlet for the third time would be fairly reasonable. It's through this method that the child will learn that you mean what you say and that the action is dangerous.

The ruling has been argued against, because some believe that any physical harm to a child could be constituted as abuse. However, there has to be a balance. Parents have a right to discipline their children, but there is a difference between spanking and beating. Children shouldn't be covered in bruises from repeated spankings and those who use this as a main form of punishment and go too far can still be held accountable in court.

How will the court decide if the spankings or force used are fair? The balance is the protection of the child; was there a reason for doing so, and was it reasonable to hurt the child? That's the point you'll need to focus on if you're trying to prove abuse has taken place.

Source: The Boston Globe, "SJC affirms parental right to discipline their children," Peter Schworm, June 25, 2015

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