RALEIGH, N.C. – How far corporal punishment can go before parents are committing child abuse was on trial Wednesday as North Carolina’s highest court heard the case of a father whose paddling left bruises on a son who wouldn’t eat his dinner.
The state Supreme Court heard from lawyers arguing whether to preserve a father’s misdemeanor conviction after he left bruises along his 10-year-old son’s leg. Dean Varner paddled his son for turning up his nose at pizza for dinner in 2015. The swats left black, blue and purple bruises from the boy’s hip to his knee and a bruised foot that left him limping for days.
Varner was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation.
His attorney said the Lee County man acted within his parental right to use corporal punishment and the boy’s bruises faded in a few days. So the trial judge should have told jurors that parents are allowed to apply moderate punishment, meaning no lasting injuries, defense attorney Katy Dickinson said.
“The way in which the jury was instructed allowed each juror to come up with his or her own definition of what moderate punishment was, without any guidance,” said Dickinson, who works for the state agency that appeals criminal cases for people who can’t hire their own attorneys. “There’s a reasonable possibility that the jury convicted Mr. Varner based on its belief that somehow the punishment was excessive even though (the boy’s) injuries were only temporary.”
Bruises lasting for days aren’t moderate, state attorney Anne Middleton told the justices. And jurors can appropriately decide the hard question of when corporal punishment crosses the line into a crime because most people have a gut understanding that, like obscenity, they know it when they see it, Middleton said.
The Supreme Court tackled the issue of how far white men could go in beating children, women or slaves behind closed doors as far back as 181 years ago and some of the legal principles decided then remain, Middleton said.
However, “we’ve moved to a recognition for about the past half-century that there is a need in private situations to somehow protect people from the very people who” are assumed to be acting in their best interest, she said.
The case comes at a time corporal punishment is on the decline.
North Carolina remains one of the few states that still allow public school administrators to paddle children whose parents have given permission, but it was applied only 75 times in two counties during the 2016-17 academic year. Robeson County schools, where paddling was used most, are under pressure from some parents to end the practice.