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When Physical Discipline Turns into Child Abuse Charges in North Carolina


There is no question that parenting during the pandemic has been difficult for a number of people, especially for divorced or otherwise separated parents who disagree about certain issues, such as how to discipline their child. In fact, disagreements over issues such as corporal punishment have even led to false accusations of child abuse  and assault sometimes being made against the other parent.

However, although the courts have repeatedly upheld the right to raise your child as you see fit (within reasonable limits), and 65 to 80 percent of all US parent spank their children, there is still a significant amount of confusion over when physical discipline becomes child abuse, especially given that more and more experts are publishing studies indicating that physical discipline and spanking inflicts lasting emotional, mental, and physical harm on children that stays with them into adulthood, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

State v. Varner: Injury & Intent Matter

One 2017 North Carolina case in particular highlights the confusion in both the public and judicial realm: State v. Varner involved a defendant parent who became angry with his 10-year-old son for refusing to eat dinner. He proceeded to yell and curse as he struck his son’s thigh and foot with a paddle, causing bruising and pain, as well as an inability for the child to participate in gym class for several days. Several months later, the State charged the defendant with felony child abuse.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury that it could not convict the defendant if it determined that the child’s injuries were inflicted as a result of “moderate punishment,” but decided to leave what constitutes “moderate” punishment up to the jury’s “reason and common sense” instead of providing jurors with a specific definition. The jury found the defendant guilty of the lesser offense of misdemeanor child abuse, and the defendant appealed and won a new trial, with the appellate court finding that the trial court committed a reversible error in failing to clarify the term “moderate” for the jurors as referring to “any punishment that did not produce a lasting injury,” instead leaving them to convict the defendant even if he acted honestly but excessively in their individual opinions.

The court went into additional detail indicating that it would have been proper for the judge to advise the jury that it can convict the defendant if it determines that he acted out of “wickedness of purpose” – regardless of the extent of any physical injuries – because while there was insufficient evidence from which a jury could find that the defendant’s use of the paddle caused or was used to cause permanent injury, there was sufficient evidence that the defendant acted with malice because he “cursed and yelled at his son prior to administering the paddling,” and the jury could find that the paddling was “excessive,” which can be indicative of malice.

North Carolina’s Current Definition of Abused Juvenile

As a result of this case, there was clearly a need to provide more specificity in what exactly constitutes child abuse. Today, North Carolina defines a child abuse victim or an “abused juvenile”  as any juvenile under the age of 18 who is a victim of human trafficking or whose caretaker, custodian, guardian, or parent engages in the following:

  • Committing or allowing to be committed offenses such as human trafficking, involuntary servitude, or sexual servitude;
  • Committing, encouraging, or permitting the commission of any rape, sex offense, or certain other unlawful sexual activities, including violations of obscenity laws;
  • Creating or allowing a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the child to be created (other than by accidental means);
  • Creating or allowing serious emotional damage to be created to the juvenile (as evidenced by severe anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior towards themselves or others, or withdrawal);
  • Approving, directing, or encouraging the juvenile to commit delinquent acts involving moral turpitude;
  • Inflicting or allowing serious physical injury to be inflicted upon the juvenile (other than by accidental means); or
  • Using or allowing grossly inappropriate procedures or devices to modify behavior to be used against the juvenile.

If You Have Any Questions or Concerns About Your Rights and/or Criminal Charges in North Carolina, Contact Our Office Today

While the law sill allows for corporal punishment as a form of discipline, at the same time, with more and more experts finding that corporal punishment inflicts serious emotional damage on children that includes anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior towards themselves and others, it is clear why parents and other guardians are unclear as to what exactly their rights are. Still, it is important to remember that the law upholds the ability for parents to administer “moderate” corporal punishment: If the parent administers the punishment honestly and permanent injury is not threatened or produced, the law cannot question the parent’s discretion to choose the degree of punishment.

If you have any questions about criminal charges, contact a North Carolina criminal lawyer at the Hauter Law Firm, PC. We will ensure that you receive the very best in legal guidance and outcome if you work with us on your case.



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