Family Law: A case about parental discipline. Does spanking your child on the rare occasion categorically constitute “serious physical harm” sufficient to invoke dependency jurisdiction?

A California appellate court, in the case In re D.M., B260549, was asked to determine whether a parent who would occasionally spank her children, ages seven and four, with her hand and sandal was necessarily causing serious physical harm to the level that required dependency jurisdiction, thereby making the children dependents of the court.  The dependency court held that dependency jurisdiction is invoked when a parent, on repeated occasions, hits their children with a shoe because doing so is intentionally inflicting serious physical harm.  However, as the appellate court pointed out, the dependency court failed to follow the proper analysis by failing to consider whether the spankings qualified as reasonable parental discipline.  The appellate court reversed and remanded the case back to the dependency court to reconsider.

While Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300 makes a child who has suffered serious physical harm at the hands of a parent subject to dependency jurisdiction, it also exempts “reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks if there is no evidence of serious physical injury.”

The dependency court did not properly consider and weigh the fact that the spanking occurred on the rare occasion when other techniques of discipline would not work, that the investigator found no marks, bruises, welts, or scars, and that the children reported that the spanking, when it did occur, “did not hurt too much.”

The analysis that must be followed to determine whether a parent’s use of discipline falls within the scope of the parental right to discipline their child turns on 1) whether the parent’s conduct is genuinely disciplinary; 2) whether the punishment is necessary and warranted under the circumstances; and 3) whether the amount of punishment is reasonable or excessive.