Even in South Carolina, corporal punishment is becoming highly problematic

When I first started practicing family law in South Carolina a quarter century ago, “Spare the Rod; Spoil the Child” was a biblically sanctioned cultural meme. Not only would family court judges approve of corporal punishment as a method of disciplining children, many believed that failing to use corporal punishment for a thoroughly misbehaving child would lead to a spoiled child.

This didn’t mean that all corporal punishment was allowable. S.C. Code § 63-7-20(6) excludes from its definition of “child abuse or neglect” corporal punishment that is not “excessive” if it meets five conditions. One of those conditions is that it is “reasonable in manner and moderate in degree.” Another condition is that it “has not brought about permanent or lasting damage to the child.” Corporal punishment that was “excessive,” immoderate in degree, or left lasting damage was considered abuse. This would suggest that corporal punishment that wasn’t these things was allowable.

Until quite recently, it had been well over a decade since I was involved in a South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) abuse proceeding involving corporal punishment. In the past, the DSS might bring child abuse proceedings if a parent’s use of corporal punishment resulted in open wounds or broken bones (which, in my experience, rarely happened). However I don’t recall DSS bringing proceedings for corporal punishment that merely left light bruising.

It could be coincidence, but in the past three months, I have represented three different fathers investigated by DSS for “excessive” corporal punishment in which the injuries were nothing but bruising and there was no evidence of repeated bruising or lasting damage from this corporal punishment. That such corporal punishment might not meet the statutory criteria of “child abuse” did not provide these fathers safe harbor. They still had their visitation curtailed and needed to retain counsel for guidance through a DSS investigation. Some of them became defendants in DSS proceedings.

I’ve never been a fan of corporal punishment as a method of discipline. Just this week the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that corporal punishment not be used as a method of discipline, finding it to be counterproductive. Yet South Carolina law and culture still approves of it. Thus, in the past, when clients asked about it, I would inform them that it was allowable so long as it didn’t cause injury.

Yet experience shows that parents often cannot limit their force sufficiently to avoid leaving a mark and that, at least under current DSS guidelines, leaving a mark or bruise is sufficient for DSS to begin child abuse investigation protocols. Given contemporary mores, the best approach to corporal punishment for South Carolina parents is to abjure it. Whatever benefits parents think they achieve from this method of discipline not longer outweigh the risks of DSS involvement.

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