Richard L. Davis, (2012) “Physical assaults against children”, Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 4 Iss: 1, pp.54 – 61
Richard L. Davis, Adjunct Instructor at Quincy College at Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA and President of Family NonViolence Inc., Fairhaven, Massachusetts, USA
To read all of the articles and studies referenced in the paper, use the URLs provided. There is also an online hyperlinked version of this paper that can be found at: http://familynonviolence.wordpress . If you have any questions, please contact the author.
Purpose – A fundamental purpose of Massachusetts’ General Law 209A is to prevent the use of physically assaultive behavior between family members and intimate partners to change or alter their behavior. This Massachusetts Law is similar to laws in all 50 states. Despite the fact that the vast majority of domestic violence laws contain no exceptions for age, the acceptance of physical assaults against children continues. This paper aims to investigate physical assaults on children.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper compares and contrasts corporal punishment and domestic violence laws and explores what role cognitive dissonance plays in the acceptance of physical assaults against children by parents or guardians. It questions how or why public policy makers, domestic violence interveners and the majority of American adults continue to accept that the goal of preventing family physical assaults is possible in a family or a society that condones rather than condemns the use of physical assaults against children, including the use of belts or other injurious instruments.
Findings – This paper presents corporal punishment and criminal justice data that suggest that when some states did end corporal punishment in schools, the use of violence in general in that state was reduced.
Originality/value – These data suggest it may be possible to end or reduce the use of all physically assaultive behavior against another person in general when society condemns the use of all physically assaultive behavior regardless of age.
The law still stops for some family members
On page 19 of the 1984, US Department of Justice Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence report it notes that, “An assault is a crime regardless of the relationship of the parties.” On the same page it also notes that, “The law should not stop at the front door of the family home” (Hart, 1984). The fact is that the law continues to stop at the front door for family assaults against children and these assaults include the use of belts or other injurious instruments (Davis, 2011; Straus, 2011; World Corporal Punishment Research, 2011).
In this twenty-first century, it should be obvious to public policy makers and domestic violence interveners that we have not and are not going to arrest and incarcerate our way to safer homes, families or neighborhoods. Too often public policy makers and domestic violence interveners, fail to recognize that the criminal justice system, by its very nature, provides reactionary, not preventative, intervention. Education and proper role models, not incarceration, are the best and most cost effective panaceas for physical assaults inside and outside our homes (Davis, 2011; Lubell et al., 2008; Tremblay et al., 2008).
Domestic violence laws
The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) (2011) defines domestic violence in part, as the following:
We define domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
Massachusetts General Law 209A define abuse and domestic violence, in part, as the following:
“Abuse”, the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members; (a) Attempting to cause or causing physical harm.
There is nothing in the majority of domestic violence laws that define or limit physical assaults to chronic or serious assault or to a specific age or gender.
In most states a threat, a simple attempted assault, a minor battery between adults or in some states a custodial dispute over children can trigger a mandatory arrest. At the same time, the majority of adults continue to minimize or dismiss the physical assaults against children (spankings) as being necessary or harmless (WomensLaw.org).
There is no question that spankings are power and control actions that are used or condoned by adults (adults who profess these are actions of compassion and love) to control or alter the behavior of children. Thus, it should be easy to understand how or why so many children will continue to exhibit this same behavior when they reach adulthood (Davis, 2011).
We often want or in fact expect a single or simple reason for complex problems. However, the vast majority of the research studies reveal that there is rarely a single uncomplicated reason or a straightforward simple solution for anything. Nevertheless, the criminal justice data suggest that family or community role modeling is a primary reason for the replication of physical assaultive behavior (Davis, 1998).
Another problem that is as old as families themselves is the fact that too often too many parents appear oblivious to the fact that most often, but not always, children will do as their parents or peers do and not as their parents say they should do.
Criminal justice data (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (SCJS), 2011) and empirical studies document that the majority, but not all, violent offenders come from homes where assaultive behavior is common (Duke University, 2011). Often many of the offenders live in violent homes, neighborhoods or both (Lubell et al., 2008; USDOJ, 2004). Most live in homes where their parents, culture or community does not value the role of education (Lubell et al., 2008; Vaznis, 2011).
This paper suggests that positive role modeling, nonviolent discipline and education are necessary to end or at least minimize physically assaultive behavior between adults. And so we need to begin at the beginning (Davis, 2008, 2011; Lubell et al., 2008; Straus, 2011; Tremblay et al., 2008).
In the both the civil and criminal justice systems of most countries a physical assault is generally defined as intentional attempted or completed harmful physical contact with another person without their consent.
On 5 April 2011 the USDOJ and the US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) jointly released the report, “Evidence-based practices for children exposed to violence: a selection from federal databases” (EBPCEV). The EBPCEV presents findings from federal reviews of research, studies and program evaluations with the intent of helping communities improve their interventions and outcomes for children exposed to violence (USDOJ/USDHHS, 2011). The EBPCEV notes that:
- Spanking is a physical assault that is used by a parent or guardian to gain or maintain the dominant parental position in the family and is used to control or alter the behavior of the child.
- On page 2 of the Glossary section of the EBPCEV report, it provides the USDOJ definition of domestic violence. The USDOJ definition could be summarized as, “coercive behavior or a physical assault that is used by one intimate partner to gain or maintain the dominant position in the relationship and is used to control or alter the behavior of the other intimate partner.”
- On page 4 of the same section the EBPCEV report notes that Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.
Spanking, as noted in 1 above, is a physical assault that remains condoned behavior in all 50 states. The majority of Americans continue to use or condone this form of physically assaultive behavior (Straus, 2011).
However, all 50 states now condemn the physical assaults in 2 and 3 above. In all 50 states, the physical assaultive behaviors in 2 and 3 are recognized as domestic violence crimes (WomensLaw.org, 2011).
It is difficult to understand this seemingly obvious disconnect of logic or empirical reasoning where 2 and 3 are crimes, while 1 remains accepted social behavior. Perhaps, one explanation for this particular and peculiar acceptance is that most Americans are unwilling or unable to recognize spanking as physically assaultive behavior that rises to abusive behavior or a crime because most Americans continue to assault their children or condone those assaults and many people continue to believe spankings are necessary for reasons of discipline (Lubell et al., 2008).
Children’s exposure to violence (CEV)
On page 1 of the glossary section of the EBPCEV it notes that:
Physical abuse is the use of physical force such as hitting, kicking, shaking, burning or other show of force against a child (italics added).
Neither the USDOJ nor the USDHHS, as individual institutions, have acknowledged or acted upon the basic finding of their EBPCEV report. To date, neither the USDOJ nor USDHHS has presented a formal public stand against the familial physical assaults (spanking) of children by parents or caretakers.
Historically, the reason most often given for condoning the use of physical assaults by authorities in the community or by parents and caretakers is that these physical assaults are used only when they are necessary to maintain community or family discipline.
Most public policy makers, domestic violence interveners, members of the media and the general public continue to believe and proclaim that physical assaults between adult family members are abusive behaviors while family physical assaults against children by adults are not.
In 20 states public policy makers, domestic violence interveners, members of the media and the general public have acknowledged that schools may continue physically assaulting children. In all 50 sates, the majority of adults continue to condone parents physically assaulting children. In all 50 states, under certain circumstances and conditions, these physical assaults include beating children with belts or other injurious instruments (Cobble, 1999; Davis, 2011; Straus, 2011; World Corporal Punishment Research, 2011).
Prevention vs reaction
On page 9 of the glossary section of the EBPCEV the first intervention listed is primary prevention. The intent of primary prevention is to, first and foremost, prevent the problem from occurring. Central to these legislative efforts are strategies that attempt to prevent the initial victimization or perpetration.
Listed last are what the report labels indicated interventions. The EBPCEV notes that indicated interventions are approaches or interventions that intervene with people who have already perpetrated the violence or have already been victimized.
Thus, an indicated intervention, by its very nature, represents the reactionary intervention role of law enforcement. Law enforcement, again, by its very nature most often occurs after the fact and it is not a preventative procedure.
Cognitive dissonance arises from the uneasy and awkward feelings caused by holding two opposed ideas (physical assaults are crimes and physical assaults are necessary) in mind at the same time.
The majority of Americans oppose legislation that would prevent or limit spanking (the physical assaults of children) perhaps in part, because their viewing spanking as abuse or a crime flies in the face of their personal experience and their inability to think of their parents as abusers or criminals. Hence, most people do not encounter a cognitive dissonance (Barker, 2003).
Many, if not most, Americans also seem unwilling or unable to understand or accept the logic that hitting children to teach them the lesson that hitting another person is wrong behavior, is wrong behavior!
On a national level, many surveys reveal that the majority of people (about 75 per cent) do believe it is wrong for people who are not parents or guardians to hit children to change or alter the child’s behavior. At the same time, many other surveys reveal that the majority of people (about 75 per cent) believe it is right for parents or guardians to hit children to change or alter their behavior (Straus, 2011). Is it possible here that a lesson learned is that it is acceptable behavior to hit someone if you love them (McNeely, 2011).
Regardless, reasonable people should be able to disagree reasonably. The data clearly demonstrate that most children who are occasionally spanked with caution and care are well behaved and will become law-abiding adults. However, reams of data also document that children raised without spanking are also well behaved and grow into law-abiding adults. Hence, while spanking is not always responsible for violent people or communities, spankings are also not necessary for children to behave peacefully or to achieve law-abiding citizenship (Straus, 1996).
Risk factors are associated with the greater likelihood of a behavior occurring. However, it is important to understand that risk factors are not one and the same as causal factors. Risk factors are often contributing factors that can lead to a direct cause for the behavior of some people but not others (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2011a, b, c).
It is a fact that the majorities of people who exceed the speed limit in cars do not get into accidents and kill people. It is a fact that the majority of people who drink alcohol do not become alcoholics. It is a fact that the majorities of people who smoke do not contract lung cancer and die. However, the data demonstrate that there are risk factors involved in speeding, drinking alcohol or smoking.
In fact, every state has some form of public educational and health-based efforts that demonstrate the potential negative effects and risk factors of the above behaviors. It cannot be denied (simply ask or observe someone who was just spanked) that immediate and obvious pain and suffering is a negative effect of spanking. Many studies demonstrate that pain and suffering are not the only negative effects of spanking for some children (Straus, 2011).
In Massachusetts, similar to most states, there is no definition of reasonable force concerning the physical assaults of children and it is legal to discipline children with belts or other injurious instruments (Cobble vs Department of Social Services, 1999). It should be, however it is not, obvious that anyone hitting children with a belt or other injurious instrument is not using reasonable force (Massachusetts Law Updates, 2007).
In 2009, Family NonViolence Inc. (FNI) of Fairhaven, Massachusetts lobbied to have legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to use belts or other injurious instruments for the purpose of discipline. Of the 200 legislators in Massachusetts only three informed FNI that they would actively support that legislation.
FNI supports the Massachusetts legislation titled, An Act Relevant to Nonviolent Discipline, FNI is not asking the Commonwealth to criminalize spanking. FNI is supporting legislation that only requires the Commonwealth to provide education concerning any potential negative risk factors concerning the use of physical assaults by adults against children (Family NonViolence Inc., 2011).
Initial victimization or perpetration
Not long ago in America, it was legally and morally acceptable for adults who held authority over other adults to physically assault the other adults for the purpose of discipline and behavioral correction. Contemporarily in America physical assaults between adult family members or between family members of the same age is illegal (Davis, 2008). In this twenty-first century this conviction or legal authority is held primarily by totalitarian regimes.
On page 24 of the findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey report, Extent, Nature and Consequences of IPV, it notes that:
For example, 40 percent of surveyed women and 54 percent of surveyed men said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker […] (Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000, p. 24).
These findings suggest that many of the physical assaults in this IPV survey may have been spankings. In America, we remain a society that believes and expects that it can somehow mysteriously and magically condemn and prevent physical assaultive behavior between family members or intimate partners when they reach adulthood primarily through the use of a reactionary criminal justice system, while continuing to use or accept the use of physical assaults against children.
Historically autocratic rulers and the privileged members of society had the right to use physical assaults, both minor and lethal, to control the behavior of the minority or disempowered members of society. Today, many Americans have parents or grandparents who were minority or disempowered members in their community.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the use of corporal punishment was legal and common in American public and private schools. In fact, many people in the academe and the general public believed that physical assaults were necessary to achieve discipline in schools. They also believed that corporal punishment actually played a role in the learning process.
Children not only need discipline, many children want to be disciplined. Children become better citizens when they understand the reason for and the purpose of discipline. However, discipline and spanking are not always one and the same.
Some studies demonstrate that spanking a child might quickly and temporarily end that specific or individual misbehavior. Spanking often can provide a quick and simple remedy. However, reams of recent research and studies document there are other effective ways to achieve proper behavior (Davis, 2011; Lubell et al., 2008; Straus, 2011; World Corporal Punishment Research, 2011).
Today, the laws in the majority of states, most people, and the majority of both public and private schools recognize that discipline and learning can be established without the use of corporal punishment. There are few to no empirical studies that document students who endure corporal punishment will behave or learn better than students who do not (Straus, 2011).
Empirical evidence and common sense
Spanking is a physical assault and public policy makers and domestic violence interveners need to recognize spanking is a risk factor for family conflict. The Centers for CDC list 29 different risk and protective factors just for IPV and physical discipline as a child is one of the risk factors (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011b).
The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) web site has a map that documents the most and least peaceful/violent states. To determine the level of peace/violence for each state the IEP uses data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Centers for Disease Control. The data include five indicators:
- homicide rates;
- violent crimes (physical assaults are included as a violent crime);
- percentage of population in jail;
- number of police; and
- availability of small arms (guns) (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2011).
The World Corporal Punishment Research web site has a map that originally appeared in the New York Times in 2006. This map documents the states where corporal punishment in American public schools is still legal (World Corporal Punishment Research, 2011). If you visit these web sites, you will discover that these two maps are strikingly similar.
The SCJS (2011), does not provide a similar map. However, the SCJS data suggest that most states that use or condone corporal punishment in their schools have higher rates of aggravated or serious physical assaults than states that do not use or condone corporal punishment in schools.
This author very clearly understands that the above correlations do not empirically demonstrate that spankings or corporal punishment in schools cause higher rates of violence between adults. However, this data, at the very least, should demonstrate cause for concern about this particular and curious correlation between physical assaults (violence) in the schools and physical assaults between adults and violence in general in the community.
It also seems logical to deduce that communities that continue to accept the physical assaults against children by adults in the schools or in the home will be more acceptant of the belief that the physical assaultive behavior is acceptable behavior to resolve conflict.
It is more than ironic that children learn that parents or caretakers, people who are supposed to love and care for them, are also the very same people who are the most likely to physically assault them. Why is it that so few of us believe that this association between love and physically assaultive behavior in childhood does not or will not, for many of us, carry over into adulthood (McNeely, 2011)?
It is not unusual for parents to hit/spank siblings when they fight each other as children. Is not hitting someone to stop them from hittingsomeone else illogical? Why do so many adults continue to believe children will do as adults tell them to do rather than the fact that children, most often, will do as adults do?
Role modeling may be the most important learning tool we have. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for public policy makers and domestic violence interveners to teach children in particular and society in general that it is wrong to use physical assaults to resolve family conflict while the majority of adults continue to role model physical assaults, in our schools and homes, to resolve conflict (Davis, 1998, 2008, 2011).
As the laws in all 50 states and public surveys demonstrate, the majority of Americans continue to use or condone physical assaults against children, including using belts or other injurious instruments.
At the same time, law enforcement officers in all 50 states are mandated to intervene – and in some states officers are mandated to make an arrest – when adult family members use physical assaults against each other, regardless of chronicity or how minor that assault may be. The very premise of this proposition or public policy should seem illogical to every public policy maker and all domestic violence interveners. However, it does not and this conflicting and confusing premise continues unabated in all 50 states.
It should also seem illogical to everyone and anyone to expect that a reactive arrest and criminal justice process should be the principal intervention to prevent future family physical assaults.
It should be equally illogical for public policy makers and domestic violence interveners to continue condoning the use of physical assaults by adults against children while at the same time actually expecting that somehow or some way children can or will learn and understand that using physical assaults to change or alter behavior or achieve any goal is wrong. Far too often contemporary domestic violence public policy and domestic violence interventions simply ignore the physical assaults against children conundrum.
It is time domestic violence interveners and public policy understand that law enforcement has not and cannot prevent people from using either minor or lethal physical assaults, both inside and outside the home.
As long as adults continue to role model the use of physical assaults against children and among each other to achieve goals, physical assaultive behavior will continue regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation or relationship (McDonald et al., 2006).
In Massachusetts FNI is attempting to begin change through the use of the velvet glove of preventive education rather than the mailed fist of a reactive criminal justice system. This discussion about the use of physical assaults to change behavior or achieve a goal is needed because until we begin at the beginning there can be no end in sight.
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Richard L. Davis can be contacted at: email@example.com