Family Law

When Child Discipline Becomes Child Abuse

Related Item

A Dallas-area couple are charged with killing the man's 10-year-old son by denying him water for five says. They did so to punish the boy for bedwetting. The boy suffered in 100-degree heat before passing out from dehydration.The father and the boy's stepmother are charged with injury to a child causing serious bodily injury.

According to the National Institutes of Health, bedwetting is common in children up to age five and even older. It's rarely caused by disease or abnormal medical condition. It's almost always a developmental problem that kids grow out of. Punishment of any type is inappropriate. Sometimes stress can make the condition worse. Needless to say, withholding water from a child as punishment is inappropriate for any reason. It's a clear case of child abuse posing serious health risks to the child.

Original Article

For some, the memory of childhood is not of sunny days but of survival. In "Mommie Dearest" movie goers watched stories of harsh and bizarre punishment of children. In "Angela's Ashes" the late, great storyteller Frank McCourt recounted the gritty poverty, hunger and hardships of his childhood in Ireland. Recently, a news story broke of a California teen bound in chains by his parents.

California Teen Chained by Parents

In August 2010, a 13-year-old boy managed to escape from his Sacramento home where he had been kept in chains for two days by his father and step-mother. The boy was wrapped in chains, with padlocks securing each ankle and a long chain connected to the padlocks. During most of his two-day confinement, he was chained to the kitchen table.

The boy's father and step-mother have been charged with false imprisonment and child cruelty. The boy was placed in the custody of his biological mother.

Police said that the boy was chained because he was "in trouble" with his parents, although they did not give any more specifics about what the trouble was. He escaped when his father and step-mother left the home.

Serious Business: Termination of Parental Rights

Reports of child abuse and neglect can be made to a child protection agency. That agency, in turn, can report the abuse and neglect to the local prosecutor's office. That's who makes the decision to press charges against the parents in criminal court, to file a civil case for child abuse and neglect, or both.

Depending on how the court case unfolds, the prosecutor may seek to terminate the parental rights of one or both parents. These proceedings involve many safeguards, to be sure that the parents are given an adequate chance to defend against the charges.

The court will monitor and set a goal for the children: either to return home, or to be adopted. For older children approaching adulthood, the goal may be to transition to emancipation. Along the way, the court will assess what social services, such as specific counseling or therapy, should be provided to the child.

Termination of parental rights depends on several factors. The seriousness of the allegations of abuse and neglect are important. So are the efforts of the parents towards rehabilitation. The court also considers the child's age, health and progress. Sometimes, a parent may agree to a voluntary termination. This is such a serious matter that special care is taken to be sure the parents understand that it is permanent and not revocable.

Prosecution Can Continue Even if Child Recants

Child abuse victims sometimes recant or take back their abuse stories. They may say they were mistaken about what the abuser did or the injuries they suffered. Children may do this because despite the abuse they remain emotionally attached to their parents. Sometimes the tale of abuse was in fact a lie. Courts will be very cautious when deciding which version of the story to believe.

Because the child or teen is legally incompetent to make decisions, the court will take special precautions to be sure that the child or youth's best interests are considered. A guardian ad litem or child advocate might be named to look out for the child's best interests. This person will make recommendations to the court.

Ultimately, the decision whether to continue with the charges of abuse and neglect or of criminal conduct is up to the prosecutor. Their office staff and attorneys are trained to recognize signs of abuse and signs the victim is recanting out of fear the abuser will seek revenge.

What You Should Do

No child or teen should take abuse from a parent. If you're being seriously mistreated you should contact the police.

Outsiders understandably are reluctant to involve themselves in what seem like family matters. Child abuse is not a family matter and should be reported to the police or local child services agency. Most areas have local domestic abuse hotlines you can call to discuss your fears. They can screen the facts and advise you on what your next steps might be.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I report suspected abuse and remain anonymous? Could I be sued by a parent for making a report if it turns out there's no abuse?
  • Can an abused teen ask the court for emancipation? Are social and financial support services available?
  • Do prosecutors consider an abused teen's input in deciding whether to file criminal charges against abusive parents?
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