Guest Editorial: N.C. spanking case raises questions on parental rights

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How far can a parent go to discipline his or her child?

That question made its way to the N.C. Court of Appeals in a case involving a Lee County resident and his 10-year-old son. Dean Michael Varner was charged with child abuse after striking his son three times on his left thigh with a paddle.

Court documents state that the pair was eating dinner at the kitchen table with other family members when the son, who is a “picky eater,” refused to eat the pizza, telling his father that it made him gag. Varner left the table and briefly sat down in the living room before retrieving a paddle and returning to the kitchen. Varner is said to have counted down from three and struck his son on the thigh as well as the foot, when the child attempted to block the strikes.

The son woke up the next day with bruising from his knee to his waist and was unable to participate in gym class at school. He also walked with a slight limp. After several days, the pain and the bruising subsided.

However, a few months later, the state obtained an indictment and charged Varner with felony child abuse.

Just before turning the case over to the jury, the judge held a charge conference to discuss the jury instructions. It was here when things were no longer black and white, but instead became very gray.

Neither the state nor the defense raised an objection when Judge Thomas H. Lock said he was planning to include an instruction to advise the jury it couldn’t convict Varner if it determined his son’s injuries were a result of “moderate punishment to correct his child.”

However, when Lock said he would define “moderate punishment” as punishment that doesn’t cause lasting injury, the prosecutor objected, arguing the definition shouldn’t be limited. The judge agreed and didn’t define it, leaving jurors to define moderate punishment for themselves.

In the end, the jury acquitted Varner of felony child abuse, but found him guilty of the lesser-included charge of misdemeanor child abuse.

Varner appealed, arguing that Lock erred in reversing his decision to not define “moderate punishment” as punishment causing an lasting injury to a child. Not including that instruction, he contends, allowed the jury to convict him simply because it thought Varner’s degree of punishment was excessive, even if he was acting in good faith and didn’t inflict a lasting injury.

The three appellate judges — R. Christopher Dillon, J. Douglas McCullough and John M. Tyson — agreed in an unanimous decision to grant Varner a new trial.

It wasn’t easy, as Dillon found there was sufficient evidence from which a juror would find that Varner acted with malice because he cursed and yelled at his son before the paddling. However, Dillon reasoned a juror could also find that Varner administered the paddling without malice and that the punishment was not grossly inappropriate.

Dillon based his decision on a court case from 180 years ago — State v. Pendergrass. The N.C. Supreme Court at the time recognized parental authority to administer moderate corporal punishment: “One of the most sacred duties of parents, is to train up and qualify their children, for becoming useful and virtuous members of society; this duty cannot be effectually performed without the ability to command obedience, to control stubbornness, to quicken diligence and to reform bad habits; and to enable him to exercise this salutary sway, he is armed with power to administer moderate correction, when he shall believe it to be just and necessary.”

Without clear instructions to legally define excessive, moderate or light punishment, the jury was left to determine all of these things on its own. What one person calls light punishment, another could see excessive.

A 2014 poll conducted by The Huffington Post found that 81 percent of adults believe spanking with a hand should be legal and nearly half believe it is an effective punishment for their children. However, there are plenty on the other side of the spectrum who say corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful.

With the government in so many facets of our lives, it is tough to swallow this bitter pill and allow the state to tell parents how to raise their children. If they believe corporal punishment is a good method, who are we to correct them? It is when things get out of hand and a parent uses it “to gratify his own evil passions,” that the state has the duty to step in.