Utah Supreme Court upholds child spanking, if there’s no signs of abuse

Posted at 5:42 PM, Aug 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-10 20:10:23-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court has issued a ruling essentially upholding the spanking of a child, as long as there is no other evidence of harm or abuse.

In a ruling issued late Wednesday, the state's top court unanimously reversed an abuse case involving four children and their parents, all of whom are not identified. The state had argued to a juvenile court judge the children were abused.

"The parties stipulated to a number of findings of fact. One stipulated finding indicated that '[K.T.] also disclosed [Mother] has spanked and disciplined her and her siblings with a belt. The mother uses a black belt with rhinestones. [Father] has spanked the children with a belt historically,'" Justice John Pearce wrote in the ruling.

The ruling said the juvenile court judge overseeing the case acknowledged there was a time when hitting a child with a belt was historically deemed appropriate and reasonable discipline. However, that judge concluded times have changed and "it’s not acceptable to strike a child and certainly to strike a child, of any age, with an object, a belt, a strap, or a paddle or anything of that nature."

The parents appealed the judge's finding to the Utah Supreme Court.

"More specifically, they argue that the juvenile court erred when it concluded that spanking a child with a belt, without any additional proof of harm, constitutes abuse within the meaning of Utah law," Justice Pearce wrote.

The Utah Supreme Court sided with the parents, saying the decision made by the juvenile court was overly broad.

"The juvenile court’s per se rule expands the definition of 'abuse' to capture the myriad ways a parent might 'hit a child' with 'another object' that would not actually harm the child," Justice Pearce wrote.

The justices said under the juvenile court's finding, a pillow fight, rolled up socks or hitting a child with a Nerf sword playfully could fall under the definition of "abuse."

Justice Pearce wrote the court would need more information of harm before concluding it was, in fact, abuse under Utah law.

"It is unclear how hard Parents hit the children, whether the children suffered emotional or physical pain, and whether the children were injured. Without more, the juvenile court was forced to rely on a per se rule that has the potential to sweep non-abusive behavior into its net," he wrote.

An attorney representing the mother in this case declined to comment when contacted by FOX 13 on Thursday. The Utah Attorney General's Office, which represents the Division of Child and Family Services, said it was reviewing the ruling.

Clayton Simms, a juvenile law attorney not connected to this case, said the Utah Supreme Court essentially said it's OK to spank a child if it's reasonable discipline.

"It still captures if people go overboard," he said. "So it's not freedom to injure your kid or harm another person. It's just saying if you discipline your kid reasonably, if you spank them in a way that's reasonable discipline, that's OK."

Prevent Child Abuse Utah, a non-profit organization that works to educate people about recognizing abuse, said it was focusing on prevention and education.

"We're telling people that let's use types of discipline that don’t leave marks on a child’s body or damage a child’s self-esteem," said Gwen Knight, Prevent Child Abuse Utah's school and community outreach coordinator.

Read the Utah Supreme Court ruling here: