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Is Spanking Your Child Illegal?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Jul 06, 2024

Under California law, spanking your child or other reasonable corporal punishment is not illegal, but physical punishment on a child must not be excessive and cause injury.

The issue of corporal punishment is often controversial. California has strict laws against child abuse and harsh penalties for anyone convicted. Suppose the punishment you inflict causes a significant injury to your child. In that case, you could be charged with California Penal Code 273d PC child abuse.

Simply put, unreasonably or excessively spanking your child is illegal in California because it might lead to child abuse accusations. Sometimes, the local child services authorities will open an investigation, and the district attorney might file criminal charges against you.

California's law says that child abuse occurs when someone willfully inflicts on a child cruel or inhumane corporal punishment or injury on a child that results in a wound or traumatic condition.

A willfully inflicted injury is one that was on purpose. However, it does not necessarily mean the alleged perpetrator intended to cause injury or break any laws. A traumatic condition means a physical injury resulting from direct physical force. PC 273d child abuse can be either a misdemeanor or a felony.

It is not illegal for parents to spank their child using an object, like a belt, if spanking is justifiable, meaning a reasonable person would deem the punishment necessary under similar circumstances, and the spanking method was reasonable.

Spanking a Child - Facts

  • Corporal punishment (spanking) is not illegal under California law.
  • Corporal punishment refers to using physical force to cause a child to experience pain but not injury to correct or control the child's behavior.
  • Spanking a child for reasonable disciplinary purposes is entirely legal.
  • What is "reasonable" is often subjective and can vary from case to case.
  • The distinguishing factor between corporal punishment and child abuse lies mainly in the intent and the outcome.
  • The line between corporal punishment and abuse is not always clear, leading to confusion and legal disputes.
  • Child abuse occurs when the punishment is considered cruel and excessive or if injury or a "traumatic condition" results from it.
  • The physical punishment of a child cannot be excessive.
  • A parent can spank a child with an object if justifiable.
  • Legal spanking can result in unfair accusations of child abuse.
  • Typically, the prosecutors and courts are looking for injury.
  • If you inflict a visible injury on your child, you might have broken the law, and it's no longer reasonable discipline to the child.
  • It's easy for a legal act of corporal punishment to cross the legal line.
  • Excessive or unreasonable spanking might lead to allegations of child abuse that can start a juvenile dependency case.
  • Child abuse accusations can trigger an investigation from child protective services and the filing of criminal charges by the district attorney.
  • An injury is inflicted willfully if the act causing the injury is done on purpose.
  • You don't need to intend to injure your child or violate the law.
  • Witnesses can have different ideas about what is considered excessive.

What Is Child Abuse in California?

California Penal Code 273d PC child abuse is defined as inflicting on a child any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition.

Simply put, this means child abuse occurs when corporal punishment is excessive, or there are visible injuries or some form of trauma.

A "traumatic condition" includes physical injury or psychological trauma. Notably, no legal definition is given for "cruel" or "inhuman," meaning it can have a broad interpretation. Some examples of what may be considered child abuse include the following:

  • Striking your child in the face or head.
  • Spanking your child causes a physical injury.
  • Threatening a child with physical harm.
  • Spanking your child so frequently that the child displays emotional issues.

How Can You Avoid Child Abuse Allegations?

Based on the definition of child abuse above, it's possible for parents and guardians acting legally within their rights to be wrongfully accused of child abuse.

Therefore, to avoid crossing over into abusive territory while still disciplining your children through corporal punishment, you should consider the following:

  • Ensure that the spanking does not cause your child any injuries or bruises.
  • Your actions should be kept to the bare minimum necessary for corrective or disciplinary purposes on your child.
  • Tell your child why you are punishing them and what behavior needs to be changed.
  • Avoid using objects that could inflict injury to administer punishment.
  • Avoid punishing your child in the presence of mandatory reporters or others who might misinterpret your actions.

Who are Mandatory Reporters?

California law designates certain people as "mandatory reporters," meaning if they see any signs that cause them to suspect child abuse or neglect, they are required by law to report it to the authorities. Mandatory reporters in California include the following:

  • Teachers and school employees
  • Medical professionals, such as doctors or nurses
  • Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)
  • Social workers and counselors
  • Police and fire department personnel.
  • Members of the clergy

Suppose you administer corporal punishment in the presence of a mandated reporter who believes your actions are excessive, or any of these professionals see physical signs or behaviors in your child that make them suspect abuse. In that case, they will report it to the authorities, and you might be charged with child abuse.

What are the Penalties for Child Abuse?

Child abuse under PC 273d is a wobbler that can be a felony or a misdemeanor. If convicted of misdemeanor child abuse, the penalties include:

  • Up to one year in county jail.
  • A $6,000 fine.

If the child abuse charge is a felony and you are convicted, you can face:

  • Up to six years in jail.
  • A fine of up to $6,000.

If you have a prior felony child abuse conviction within the past ten years, an additional four years could be added to the sentence.

Probation is possible in most child abuse cases, meaning you would be placed on probation under the following conditions:

  • A protective order to prevent further violence on the child.
  • Three years minimum probation and up to six years for a felony.
  • Complete a one-year child abuser's treatment counseling program.
  • You must produce documentation of program enrollment to the court within 30 days of enrollment, along with quarterly progress reports.
  • The terms of probation will not be lifted until all reasonable fees due to the counseling program have been paid in full.
  • If the court finds that the defendant cannot pay the fees based on the changed circumstances, the court may reduce or waive the fees.
  • If the offense was committed while you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you must abstain from the use of drugs or alcohol during the period of probation. You will be subjected to random drug testing by his or her probation officer.

What is the Child Abuse Central Index?

Your name might be listed on the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI) even if criminal charges are never filed against you if the allegations of child abuse or neglect are substantiated.

Is Spanking Your Child Illegal in California?
Spanking your child or other reasonable corporal punishment is not illegal in California.

The California State Legislature created the CACI in 1965 as part of the "Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act" or "CANRA." It's used as a tool for state and local agencies to help protect children's health, safety, and welfare.

Suppose you want your name removed from the CACI. In that case, you must promptly request a grievance hearing.

A California criminal defense attorney can use different strategies against child abuse for excessive spanking. Perhaps the allegations are false, or the injuries were caused by something other than abuse.

We can argue that you were acting within your legal right to discipline the child or that the injuries were the result of an accident. Contact us for more information. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.