Child Abuse and Corporal Punishment in California

What is considered "reasonable" and within a parent's rights to discipline a child, and what is considered the crime of child abuse? In the midst of criminal charges filed against star NFL running back Adrian Peterson in Montgomery County, Texas for allegedly striking his four-year-old son with a switch, various questions have arisen regarding physically punishing children.

Each state has its own implementation of child abuse laws, and in California physical abuse is covered under Penal Code § 273d. This section addresses what many refer to as corporal punishment, or physical punishment, of a child. A controversial issue in itself, certain levels of corporal punishment may be allowed and may be considered part of a parent's right to discipline his or her child. If punishment goes too far, however, a parent may face criminal charges.

According to California Penal Code § 273d, "Any person who willfully inflicts upon a child any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition is guilty of a felony…" Punishment for this offense may include up to 1 year in county jail, or 2, 4 or 6 years in state prison, and/or a fine of up to $6,000.

A defendant convicted of physical child abuse under this section may be granted probation only under specific conditions. The mandatory minimum for probation is 36 months, and the defendant may face a stay-away order from the victim, a criminal court protective order protecting the child from further harm, one year of a child abuser's treatment counseling program, and possibly abstinence from alcohol and drugs, with random drug testing to ensure compliance.

How do the courts determine what is "cruel or inhuman corporal punishment" or "an injury resulting in a traumatic condition"? This will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, depending on the evidence at hand. The court may look at the extent of injury the child allegedly suffered, the sequence of events leading to the injury and the specific manner in which the corporal punishment or injury took place.

The act itself is likely to be carefully scrutinized. Many physical acts may be considered illegal under § 273d, depending on the manner in which they are carried out and the extent of injury they cause. This may include:

  • Hitting, punching, slapping or kicking;
  • Pushing;
  • Shaking;
  • Choking;
  • Burning; or
  • Throwing an object at a child.

In most cases, spanking is not considered cruel or inhuman corporal punishment, even if a "switch" or paddle is used, but if the child suffers visible injury, as in the case alleged against Peterson, criminal charges may result. Even a minor injury may be considered a "traumatic condition" under California Penal Code § 273d.

With the range of conduct an injury that may be alleged in a child abuse case, it can be difficult to know whether a parent may face criminal charges and the serious repercussions that these carry. As such, it is important to take an immediate, proactive approach to any type of abuse or domestic violence allegations – even if formal charges have not been filed. An attorney's early involvement may make a significant impact in avoiding related repercussions, like loss of employment, interference with custody or visitation, negative media attention and more.

At Lessem & Newstat, we represent defendants, suspects and arrestees across Los Angeles and Southern California in the most sensitive criminal cases. We recognize that some cases must be handled with kid gloves, so to speak, and we take a strategic approach while applying the right amount of pressure when needed to assert our clients' rights. To discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney at our firm, please call for a confidential consultation.