More than 1,000 reports of child abuse and neglect pour into Mecklenburg County DSS each month, often involving corporal punishment.
The practice has come under scrutiny this week with the indictment of NFL running back Adrian Peterson. He has been accused of hitting his 4-year-old son with a wooden branch until it left open wounds and welts.
Peterson’s case has raised an age-old question: When does discipline become child abuse?
The topic took over online message boards, radio and television shows, with reaction ranging from commenters shocked that parents strike their children to others who told personal stories of how corporal punishment helped make them better people.
North Carolina and all other states allow parents to use reasonable corporal punishment to discipline their children. State law says physical abuse occurs when caregivers intentionally injure children.
But how investigators and the courts define abuse can vary widely from county to county, said Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a law professor at Duke University.
“The question is whether the corporal punishment is reasonable,” Coleman said. “A jury in Charlotte may think it’s unreasonable and somewhere else they might think it’s reasonable.”
A spokeswoman for Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said his office determines whether child abuse charges should be filed on a case-by-case basis.
The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services confirmed abuse and neglect or need for services in roughly 1,900 of the 10,000 complaints the agency investigated during a recent one-year span.
Charles Bradley, director of Youth and Family Services, said social workers look for marks, bruises and other signs of injuries.
Investigators also assess whether the discipline is appropriate for the child’s age or whether parents punish their kids too frequently.
Bradley recalled cases in which caregivers forced children to kneel on raw rice grains, which can cause cuts and pain, or made them hold bricks for long periods. In other cases, he said, parents punished kids by making them stand outside in cold weather with little clothing.
“We’ve seen everything,” Bradley said.
Spanking still common
Experts interviewed this week said research shows corporal punishment is far less effective than other discipline. The practice, they say, can lead to increased delinquency, depression and violence in children.
At least 39 countries have banned corporal punishment, some arguing that it violates human rights.
But the practice remains widespread in the United States, according to a 2013 report from Child Trends, a nationally known research group.
That report found 94 percent of parents with children ages 3 to 4 had spanked their kids within the previous year. In the same survey, 77 percent of men and 65 percent of women agreed that children sometimes need a “good hard spanking.”
“If you wrote a piece saying don’t spank, you would be surprised at the hate mail you would get,” Coleman said. “They would say ‘Don’t mess with family business.’ ”
Jennifer Lansford, a research professor at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, said abuse is sometimes overlooked because local DSS offices are so overwhelmed they focus on the most egregious cases.
Social workers typically rule corporal punishment abuse only if it leaves a mark that lasts more than 24 hours, Lansford said. Felony child abuse in North Carolina is punishable by up to five years in prison.
She said the topic is so taboo among politicians that the United States has joined South Sudan and Somalia as the only countries that have yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that spells out the civil, social and economic rights of children.
“The system has a bias toward the parent and a bias toward not protecting the child,” Lansford said.
Peterson defends himself
Peterson, who plays for the Minnesota Vikings, said he did not intend to hurt his son. Declaring that he is not a child abuser, Peterson has said he used the same discipline he received growing up in Texas.
The Vikings, who endured stinging criticism for first announcing Peterson would play in this Sunday’s game, reversed course and placed him on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list, a step that forces him to stay away from practices and games while he addresses the child abuse charges.
On Friday, a report surfaced that Booker Bowie, who was one of Peterson’s coaches at Palestine High School in Texas, said that he used to smack Peterson with an 18-inch-long wooden paddle. Bowie reportedly said he used the paddle to discipline his players and show “tough love.”
Others have come to Peterson’s defense, saying spanking with wooden branches, belts and other objects were part of their upbringing.
North Carolina is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment in schools. A state report shows the discipline was used in Robeson, Bladen, Graham, Swain, Macon, McDowell, Mitchell, Onslow and Caswell counties in the 2012-13 school year.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools prohibits corporal punishment.
“What signal does it send when an agent of the state is hitting children?” asked Tom Vitaglione, a senior policy fellow for NC Child, a Raleigh-based advocacy group. “That is the kind of modeling we ought to worry about.”
But Vitaglione acknowledged that defining child abuse is difficult.
“It is like pornography,” he said. “You can’t say what child abuse is, but you know it when you see it.”