A Clear Line between Disciplining Children and Physical Abuse

[The group calling themselves] Stop Child Protection Services from Legally Kidnapping has documented nearly 50 cases in 23 counties across the state of Minnesota in which children were wrongly removed and placed into foster care, based on false or disputed evidence.
Star Tribune Article, June 6, 2018

When I read this article, I felt terrible for the parents who had their children wrongfully removed from them by child protection. Sadly, I was also surprised the number of cases where this has happened isn’t higher. According to this Star Tribune article, in 2016 there were 30,936 child abuse and neglect reports accepted for review by child protection agencies in Minnesota-up 53% from 2014. Although 50 cases are certainly 50 cases too many, I would imagine the number is much higher. But it depends on what you think of as wrongly removed. Are we all clear, across cultures, about how children should be disciplined without crossing the line into physical abuse? The article made me think we have not been clear.

The Stop Child Protection Services from Legally Kidnapping group believes the laws that govern our child protection system criminalize parents for what they consider to be disciplinary actions. These parents, lawyers, & advocates are asking for parental rights, including the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children. The words “corporal punishment” jumped off the page for me. What does that mean? When I googled corporal punishment, the definition says, “caning or flogging,” but I am going to assume they are talking about spanking children.

The Star Tribune article reminded me of a recent conversation I had with Suzanne Arntson, the Manager of Child Welfare in Scott County, Minnesota. They had conducted listening sessions in their community and realized that immigrant parents didn’t know which cultural parenting practices they were using, that had been handed down for generations, were going to result in their children being taken away by child protection. We have a disproportionate number of children of color in our child protection system. Is it because we have not clearly defined how children should be cared for, including appropriate discipline practices?

Even the experts in our state child protection system were not clear on this topic in 2015; I watched as the mostly white Governor’s Taskforce participants argued over what constituted physical abuse. What is the line between discipline and harm? Is corporal punishment a swat on a child’s diapered bottom? What about a wooden spoon, belt or paddle on a bare bottom? If my memory serves me correctly, Dr. Mark Hudson argued that whenever a mark is left on a child’s body, it has crossed over into physical abuse. No parent should discipline their child so harshly that a mark is left behind. Is that the standard we want to have for parents in Minnesota? Who is having cross-cultural conversations about this issue? And once it has been decided, how are we going to communicate it to all parents?

A few days ago, I listened to a program on MPR about Hispanic parents in California who have their children help with housework from the time they are young. White parents in the community were simultaneously jealous and judgmental, believing it was inappropriate to have children help with household chores. One of the Hispanic mothers talked about the developmental basis for this practice. She said at around the age of two or three, children want to help. As all parents know, small children helping with any chore usually creates more work for the adult. But the parents in this program believe it creates a sense of purpose and belonging; the children feel they are a contributing part of the family. Not to mention the fact that it teaches them skills for when they move into their own household.

I have been wondering how we bring our cultural parenting practices together in a way that holds up good parenting practices, defines what is appropriate discipline and what we as Minnesotans consider to be too harsh. Parenting has always been considered a private topic. We all get to decide how we parent our children. But if the price of not having this conversation on a public scale is that children are wrongfully removed from their loved ones, we need to have a discussion and come to a shared understanding. It does not make sense to me that we have a different set of rules for each cultural group in our state. We all want what is best for our children. How do we start a dialogue to hold up our best cross-cultural parenting practices, define our best discipline practices, and be clear about the line that crosses into harming a child?

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