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The Washington Post, 3 September 2000
Va. Rethinks Rule Change On Spanking
By Jennifer Lenhart
Social workers and children's advocates outraged when a Virginia agency approved new regulations permitting the spanking of foster children will gather in Richmond Tuesday in an attempt to kill the measure.
The guidelines, approved in June by the state Board of Social Services, were to have taken effect Nov. 1 but were put on hold after public outcry. The board will take another vote on the standards in a few weeks, officials said.
"Something like this, this seems to be a step back. I really believe this is an area that we should not even be going into," said Louise Scott, an official of the National Foster Parent Association. "These children have been abused, and when they come into your home, you don't know what abuse they've already suffered, so you don't want to compound this. You don't want to hit these children."
At least 22 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia prohibit corporal punishment of foster children, and specialists say that most states have some restrictions. Child care experts contend that spanking children who may already have been neglected or abused has the potential to do substantial damage.
Nationally, the number of children in foster care is rising. In the District and the surrounding states, about 24,300 children are in foster care--8,000 in Virginia, 13,000 in Maryland and 3,300 in the District.
At the same time, the pool of foster parents is shrinking, social services workers say, and agencies face mounting public criticism over how foster care is run. High-profile cases, such as the death of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who was killed in January after a D.C. judge returned her to her mother, have damaged the system's reputation.
The shortage of foster parents nationwide, and in Virginia specifically, was one of the reasons officials gave for needing to relax the rules on corporal punishment, according to several social services board members, who voted 5 to 1 for the new regulation.
Several described feeling pressured by state social workers who warned that potential foster parents were turning down the jobs because of rules against spanking.
"The argument was made that . . . we were losing some otherwise qualified applicants . . . due to the restriction that they were not to spank a child," said board member Phillip W. Jones, who voted for the new rule.
Social Services Commissioner Sonia Rivero denied that the board had been pressured. The spanking rule had been studied, she said, and was not "rushed through." She said that regulations governing foster care are reviewed regularly by the Department of Social Services.
"Some people have insinuated that we are proponents of spanking. That is not true," Rivero said. "Spanking would be allowed to the extent that it is a nonabusive type of punishment, but there is nothing in this regulation that says children should be spanked."
Virginia's old regulations prohibited corporal punishment and specifically banned spanking, pinching and shaking.
The new rule would ban pinching and "harsh shaking," but spanking would no longer be prohibited because the department does not consider it abusive, according to Rivero. Also, she said, foster parents would be required to have a written disciplinary plan on file with the foster placement agency.
The Family Foundation, a Richmond lobbying organization that supports parental rights and school choice, praised the new rule, saying it puts discipline in the hands of foster parents and clarifies the precise types of discipline allowed.
"Regulations in some cases have been so extreme that they haven't been beneficial to children because parents don't want to put themselves in a situation where they could be tried on child abuse," said Robin Dejarnette, the Family Foundation's government relations director. "We're just losing too many good [foster] families because they're scared to death."
In addition to their complaints about allowing spanking, social services organizations and some pediatricians in Virginia have complained that the new regulations ban only harsh shaking.
"When do you decide when you've gone over the line?" asked Scott, with the National Foster Parent Association. "I'm going to shake until what?--his eyes roll back in his head, his neck pops?"
Still other foster care experts warned that the new rule would hand a potentially dangerous tool to foster parents who sometimes can be tested by their duties.
"It's easy to step over the line to abuse children," said Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline. "Foster children will think there's nowhere you're going to be protected from this kind of thing."
Nationally, there has been debate over whether spanking is an appropriate disciplinary tool or a form of abuse, and many states have banned corporal punishment in schools and day care centers as well as foster care. No state prohibits spanking one's own children in the home, unless the punishment leaves marks.
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found that children who were spanked weren't any more likely to do as they were told than children who were given a timeout, according to Murray Straus, director of the university's Family Research Laboratory and author of "Beating the Devil Out of Them."
"Sure, it works right then and there: They're doing something wrong, you spank them, they stop," Straus said. "But it boomerangs in the long run. It makes for a less compliant child, a less morally oriented child."
Other researchers have shown that spanking isn't detrimental to a child and that children who were spanked learned to behave in the desired manner, according to the Family Foundation. But some former foster children--self-described "survivors"--say that being spanked by someone who is not a relative is worse than getting a whipping from a member of one's own family.
It takes years, if not lifetimes, they said, for former foster children to make sense of their experience, and several said they found the notion of spanking disturbing.
"When we think of spanking, it's usually done in the context of one home, two parents, love and lessons for their children," said Marie Ramirez, 31, who lived in foster homes in Arizona between 1981 and 1986 and is now a social worker in Washington state.
"I don't think that's transferable to foster children because they experience multiple short-term placements and each placement has different expectations, different rules in the home," she said. "They likely would have trouble distinguishing between discipline and physical abuse."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
Virginian Pilot, Norfolk, VA, 6 September 2000
Public debates foster care spanking
By Elizabeth Simpson
Regulations that would allow foster parents to spank their foster children and use other types of corporal punishment drew hours of stinging criticism -- and only a small dose of support -- at a 3½-hour public hearing Tuesday.
More than 50 people, including social workers, foster parents, doctors and lawyers, spoke against the regulations, saying they will lead to confusion and leave some children more traumatized than when they walked in the doors of foster homes.
The regulations -- which pertain only to foster parents from private child-placing agencies -- would eliminate the current ban on corporal punishment, such as spanking, grabbing, binding or shaking. Foster parents could use that form of discipline as long as it doesn't rise to the level of abuse.
"Hitting a child, even with one's hand, can cause life-threatening injuries," said pediatrician Robin Foster, director of pediatric emergency care at the Medical College of Virginia. "How can we possibly condone this as an acceptable means of discipline?"
"Do we know how hard we can hit a child without leaving a bruise?" said Beverly Liles, a pediatric nurse practitioner. "If the line in the sand is not clear and marked, it's hard not to cross it."
Eight people -- two of them from Alabama-based organizations -- spoke in support of the regulation allowing nonabusive corporal punishment. Two speakers from Regent University in Virginia Beach also supported the regulations.
Jim Fiorelli, a member of the governor's advisory board on child abuse, said he appreciates the regulations because they recognize that "loving, thought-through physical discipline is sometimes appropriate."
But showing just how divisive the issue can be, another member of the same advisory board -- Joan Duhaime -- spoke against the regulations, saying that to allow corporal punishment would open the door to "institutional abuse."
The state Board of Social Services approved the regulations at a June 14 meeting.
The regulations were proposed by a committee within the state's Department of Social Services. Department officials have said the prohibition on corporal punishment has kept some people from stepping forward to be a foster or adoptive parent. The regulations are an attempt to give each child an appropriate discipline plan tailored to his or her needs, according to commissioner Sonia Rivero.
The regulations were to have gone into effect Nov. 1.
However, they've provoked a barrage of criticism since the public got wind of them in July. That's when a coalition of 32 child advocacy groups formed to fight the changes. Because of the protest, the regulations were suspended temporarily, and a public comment period was extended until Sept. 13.
Rivero said she still supports the new regulations. She said Tuesday's public comments and other letters and e-mails will be reviewed by a Department of Social Services committee, which will then make another presentation to the board. Rivero said she doesn't expect the board to take another vote on the issue before the end of the year.
Four of the eight board members attended Tuesday's hearing. "It's a dicey issue," said member Robert Spadaccini. He said he wanted to hear from the department's committee about why the corporal punishment ban was eliminated in the first place.
Sam Sabbagh, president of the Virginia Association of Licensed Child Placement Agencies, said he polled officials of Virginia's 65 child-placement agencies on whether they would allow the use of corporal punishment if the regulations go forward. Officials from all 56 agencies that responded said they would continue to prohibit their foster parents from using corporal punishment.
Representatives from Virginia's League of Social Workers, the state's Foster Care Association and the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also spoke against the regulations.
Foster parents also expressed their views. Charles Martin supported the regulations, saying his foster children wanted to be treated the same as his own biological children. "Foster children look for inequalities," he said. He said the first time one of his foster children got a spanking after being adopted by the family, she said, "Now I feel like a real Martin."
But most of the foster parents who spoke were opposed to corporal punishment.
Patti Huber said the foster children she has cared for have been physically abused before they arrived at her home. "To these children, spanking is hitting, hitting is violence and violence is abuse."
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