Spanking a child isn’t abuse unless there’s proof of harm, Utah Supreme Court says

Spanking isn’t abuse if there isn’t evidence that a child was harmed, the Utah Supreme Court says.

The court’s ruling, released Wednesday, reversed an earlier finding by a juvenile court, which said that hitting a child with “any object” constituted abuse. A couple — who weren‘t identified in the case — had spanked their four children with belts, and the state put the children into custody of the Division of Child and Family Services in February 2016.

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice John Pearce, ruled in the parents’ favor, stating that the juvenile court’s finding would stretch the definition of “abuse” too broadly. Under that ruling, the definition of abuse would expand to include myriad ways that a parent might strike a child, for example, during a pillow fight, throwing a rolled-up sock or playing with a foam sword.

The Division of Child and Family Services did not respond to requests for comment Thursday night and Friday.

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The parents argued that the state didn’t provide evidence that the discipline was harmful.

“The parents are correct,” the opinion states, adding that the lack of evidence left the juvenile court to either speculate or rely on an earlier court case that said “harm occurs any time a child is struck with any object.”

The juvenile court bridged the “evidentiary gap” by saying that, “As a society, we’ve progressed to the point where it’s not acceptable to strike a child.”

But because of the different ways parents interact with their children, juvenile courts need to be allowed the flexibility to determine what is abuse, what is discipline and what is playing, the ruling states. Without evidence of harm, the ruling states, there is an increased potential for ”an erroneous conclusion.”

“Had there been evidence of the effects of the spanking,” Pearce wrote, “… the court may have been able to conclude that the children had been harmed.”

Editor’s note: Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the wife of state Supreme Court Justice John Pearce, is the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.