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Spanking ban plan revised

Bill would outlaw specific punishments but is less restrictive than previous proposal.

February 23, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A Bay Area lawmaker retreated from her proposed ban on spanking and instead offered a bill Thursday that would criminalize parental discipline involving a closed fist, belt, electrical cord, shoe or other objects.

Additionally, the legislation by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) would make it easier to prosecute anyone who throws, kicks, burns, chokes or cuts a child younger than 18. Also included would be striking a child younger than 3 in the head or face, and vigorously shaking a baby or toddler.

Lieber triggered a heated national debate last month when she said she wanted to make it illegal for anyone, including parents, to strike a child younger than 4 years old. That proposal would have covered even a swat on the rear and made offenses punishable by up to a year in jail.

Lieber's proposal was ridiculed on television shows including "Saturday Night Live" and "The Colbert Report." Most of her colleagues in the 80-member Assembly, Lieber said, told her they couldn't support a spanking ban.

"I personally am very passionate about banning all physical abuse, but the votes are simply not there," she said. "So California law will continue to allow parents, caregivers -- whoever is in control of a child -- to spank with an open hand on the buttocks, including to the point of injury to the child."

Sixteen nations ban physical punishment of children. California law prohibits the hitting of them in schools, day care centers and foster care. It also makes it a crime to inflict "unjustifiable" physical pain on a child. Lieber said her legislation would eliminate some vagueness in that standard.

Her bill would change the law to say that certain acts -- such as hitting a child with a stick or paddle or slapping a 2-year-old in the face -- are presumed unjustifiable. Those acts would be punishable as misdemeanor crimes with penalties of up to a year in jail.

The bill also would allow prosecutors to seek felony charges against those accused of shaking babies, and it would allow judges to require violators to attend parenting classes.

California prosecutors have been trying to figure out "exactly where abuse begins and appropriate corporal punishment ends," said Thomas A. Nazario, a University of San Francisco law professor who has advised Lieber.

The bill "will paint a fairly clear picture of where the line is drawn -- what's appropriate and what's not," Nazario said.

Other lawyers aren't so sure.

John E.B. Myers, a University of the Pacific law professor who recently published a history of child protection laws, said Lieber's bill would have little effect. If it were law, he said, juries in child abuse cases could still conclude that parents were using reasonable physical punishment even if they acted in ways presumed unreasonable -- and therefore illegal -- by Lieber's bill.

At best, Lieber's measure "will send a message that if you use a closed fist, you can get in serious trouble and you'll have a tougher time defending yourself," said Myers, who supports a ban on spanking. "It's a very small step, in my estimation."

Randy Thomasson, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Children and Families, said Lieber's bill would rob parents of a disciplinary tool -- mothers in particular, because they often don't have a man's strength.

"There's too many moms who know if they spank their young boys with a hand," Thomasson said, "it doesn't cause the sting that they need to reform their behavior.

"How dare we say that our grandparents -- who had a switch or even a shoe training them to respect authority and obey the rules -- that they were abused," Thomasson said. "You meet a lot of Americans who are glad they were spanked because they needed it when they were little rebels."

No other state has laws as explicit as Lieber's measure, though an Ohio senator this week introduced a bill to bar the spanking of children younger than 3 years old.

Nadine A. Block, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio, congratulated Lieber on "hanging in there" despite heavy, sometimes personal, criticism.

She called the legislation "very reasonable as a first go."

"We would all like a perfect world ... where we just stopped hitting children," Block said. "In the imperfect world, you sometimes have to do things incrementally."

Robert Larzelere, a family science professor at Oklahoma State University who has studied corporal punishment, said he agreed with much of Lieber's legislation, especially the prohibition against striking small children on the head.

Research has found that children who were struck in the face or head showed a greater likelihood of behavioral problems later in life, he said.

But he quibbled with forbidding the use of a paddle, stick or other instrument to spank.

"The issue is not what a child is spanked with," Larzelere said, "but how hard they're spanked."

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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