You don’t have to wait until the next Halloween to visit a Hall of Terror. You can just look up Florida Statutes. It specifically allows beating up a child. But do it with a phone book so it doesn’t leave marks. You can whip, whack, smack, spank, belt, bash, paddle, flog, thrash, punch, shove, shake or throw a child, as long as the assault does not amount to intentionally malicious or mental harm.
The law pretends to define terms like “malicious” and “mental” but calls on “expert testimony” to explain what that means. Words like “torture” and “intentional” are not defined. There is no age cut-off. You may smack a 1 year old no less than a 15 year old.
The law is a ragbag of subjectivity. The summer’s school board meetings reminded us better than Casey Anthony, Annie Ernaux, and Humbert Humbert how parents, those overrated know-it-alls, can be as loving as they can be toxic. Do we really want to leave it to them to draw the line between discipline and abuse, especially in a South so fond of evangelizing violence against children?
A little over a week ago in Flagler a 29-year-old father was found guilty of brutalizing his son to the point of fracturing his skull, burning his arm, and leaving him covered in bruises from beatings with a club and a belt. The whippings were so violent that the belt buckle left days-old imprints on the boy’s skin and the boy’s blood was left on the buckle. The boy was 20 months old. Somehow, he survived.
The father disputed having anything to do with the skull fracture. He said the boy fell. He claimed the burn was accidental. But he conceded that yes, he beat his child, just as he himself had been beaten, just as his mother testified to beating him–and to being beaten herself when she was a child. These two goons literally claimed that discipline by “thorns and briers” was a family custom–no differently than North African brutes claim that clitorectomies are a family custom–and that as a father he should not be punished for it.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. When state law condones brutality, when the whole scheme depends on an invisible line that threads a difference between discipline and cruelty, you’re oiling the slope, inviting the abuser to walk it then blaming him for slipping. Abusers will exist as long as humanity will. But we shouldn’t be writing them invitations in law.
Almost 60 countries–more than a quarter of the world’s total–have banned corporal punishment, whether at home, at school or by the judicial system. Not a single American state has. Nineteen states still allow it in schools, including Florida. We never tire of talking about children’s screen time, children’s diets, children’s risks of concussion in football practice. Not a word about domestic violence on children disguised as “discipline,” a cloak for brutality that, when all else fails, can always appeal to the ultimate barbarity: I assault you because I love you. Meanwhile five children die of abuse or neglect every day in the United States, nearly 2,000 a year.
Almost nine out of 10 of those deaths occur in children 7 and younger. That’s children who haven’t yet reached the age of reason, children on whom any act of physical violence is by definition useless except as an expression of violence and power, an attempt to humiliate or shame or worse. (“Devoid of all morality in his actions,” Rousseau writes of the young child in Emile, “he cannot do anything that is morally bad and that deserves either punishment or reprimand.”) So any violence is foremost, and only, an expression of parental brutality and stupidity, or if you want to be generous, a pedagogical failure in which the child–whatever the offense, bar none–bears no responsibility.
But our laws still reflect the standards of a cruel age, spelled out in the nonsense of legal sophistries that no two physicians, no two psychologists, no two ethicists will ever agree on when dueling in court over an abuser’s acts.
“Child abuse,” for example, means in Florida law the “intentional infliction of physical or mental injury.” “Malicious” means that the violence is intended “to cause the victim unjustifiable pain or injury.”
But how is any act of physical violence by an adult against a child ever not intentional, even when allegedly “loving”? How does any act of physical violence, by definition, not inflict pain, and under what moral code not hooked to the barbarism of Hammurabi is the infliction of pain by an adult against a defenseless child ever justified? You don’t spank to please. You don’t spank to make a child reflect. You spank to hurt, to shame, and of course to make yourself feel better, you goon. The difference between hurt and harm is nil. I can hear them now, those legions of voices excusing the brutality with the pride of their battle scars: “I was whipped as a child, and look at how I turned out.” If that’s what you’re saying now, you shouldn’t be too eager to advertise how you turned out.
Under Florida law, the difference between justifiable parental “discipline” and “abuse” requires a $300-an-hour expert witness to nail down, assuming the abuser’s $400-an-hour expert doesn’t clobber the $300 one in a smackdown of jury-rigging jargon. So we get trials that should never go to trial. You smack. You pay. We don’t argue about it when it’s between two adults. A mere unwanted touch–a poke, a flick, a brush of the hand–is battery. Between adults. That’s how it ought to be with children, against whom any violence, no matter how it is defined, constrained or qualified by nonsensical legalese like “malicious” or “intentional,” is child abuse. Period. Anything less is an open door to abuse posing as discipline.
Because here we are, still arguing that shaking a baby doesn’t really cause head trauma (that was one of the arguments in last week’s trial), that belting a child still in diapers is reasonable discipline, that law reflects justifiable customs, and that parental rights, after all, reign supreme. As crocks go, you can’t do much worse than parental rights, the last redoubt of boundless, hidden, unaccountable criminality.
It’s superfluous to say that there is nothing so sublime as a parent’s love, or that an article on child abuse shouldn’t be interpreted as a condemnation of all parenting, if not most parenting. The sublime is in the ordinary, too, and the ordinary doesn’t lead to the courtroom or command headlines. But nor can it absolve the unordinary, especially when it, too, is so ordinary. There’s nothing so depraved as a parent’s violence toward one’s own child, or a society’s laws that still condone and dress up the violence in statutory exemptions left over from the days when eye-gouging contests and cat-burning were favored entertainments at county fairs.
“Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten,” goes J.M. Coetzee’s heartbreaking line. In Florida–in the United States–legally so. This must end.