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The Press Herald, Portland, Maine, 26 February 2000
Abuse ruling worrisome to child advocates
By David Hench, Staff Writer
The Maine Supreme Court's decision clearing a father of assault for bruising his 9-year-old son sets out legal limits on parental discipline, but the rationale should not be viewed as a guideline for good parenting, child welfare advocates say.
"For most child advocates, the bottom line is, any physical force used on an overly sensitive child could be extremely emotionally damaging, so marks or physical injury as the measure for whether it's too much is I think a very dangerous precedent," said Lucky Hollander, a spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Child Abuse Council.
"We teach always that children should not be hit. The law does not teach that," she said.
The state's highest court ruled Thursday that Lawrence Wilder's conviction in Portland District Court on three counts of assaulting his son in 1998 should be thrown out because his behavior met the legal definition of justifiable physical force by a parent to prevent or punish misconduct.
Twice, while playing games with his son during a weeklong visit, Wilder grabbed his son's shoulder to stop him from talking so much. The grip was so powerful it left bruises on the boy. In a third incident, the two were in a car waiting to go fishing, when Wilder grabbed his son's face to stop him from exaggerating about a movie they had seen the previous night, again causing bruises.
The court ruled that while "neither the state nor this court may necessarily condone or agree with Wilder's approach to control of his son," the physical harm he caused was transient and temporary and grabbing him hard to stop him from talking was not "grossly deviant" from what a reasonable parent might do in the same circumstance.
The case is only the second time in 25 years the state's highest court has examined what is justifiable parental discipline; the other case involved blatant abuse of a 3-year-old to stop her from crying.
Hollander, vice president of advocacy and prevention services for the Cumberland County Child Abuse Council, said while she and other child welfare advocates oppose corporal punishment, that does not mean children are always being emotionally harmed when they are spanked or hit.
"I'm probably in the minority among my peers, but I think that most all children will probably be slapped occasionally. Certainly there are some children who can be hit a significant amount, and for a lot of reasons they figure out how to keep themselves safe," she said. "And when they get out and grow up, they don't repeat."
But she wonders why any parent would want to take the chance of leaving long-term emotional scars which can result even from hitting that is not excessive, or from the threat of hitting.
"We have an unfortunate precedent in this country of measuring injury by how severe it is physically," Hollander said. "Are there marks? Are they big enough and are they bloody enough? That can't be the standard or we won't make inroads to preventing child abuse."
Also worrisome is the level of anger Wilder must have had to bruise his child just by grabbing him, she said.
Lois Galgay Reckitt, director of Family Crisis Services, said excessive child discipline often involves issues of power and control similar to those involved in domestic violence cases between adult partners, which her agency focuses on.
"I just think in this country as a whole, we look at kids as if somebody owns them other than they themselves," she said. "To me, as soon as you lay a hand on a child you run the risk of crossing a line. This happened as a result of the kid talking. It's not like he was slugging the parent." The court's opinion noted that lawmakers set the boundaries of legally acceptable parenting:
"While there are individuals who legitimately and firmly believe that any discipline which causes a child physical pain is inappropriate, any change in the parental control justification presently set by the Maine Criminal Code is an issue of policy properly subject to action by the Legislature, not the courts." Bernice Landry, Wilder's ex-wife, learned of the decision Friday morning. The news frightened her, she said, because it leaves open the possibility that Lawrence Wilder may seek to resume unsupervised visits with their son, who is now 11.
"My son went in front of a judge and testified against his father. Now I fear for him," Landry said. "We've had no contact or discussions (with Wilder) in two years, no contact whatsoever."
Landry's fear is partly based on the fact that Wilder was convicted 10 years ago of sexually assaulting their baby daughter. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail and six years probation, and while on probation was allowed only supervised visits with his son.
A telephone message left at Wilder's home was not returned by press time.
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