Parents, Courts Debate Propriety of Spanking to Discipline Children


Like millions of other parents, Lawrence Maloni spanked his 8-year-old child for lying. Unlike most of his peers, the father of four faces a possible criminal conviction with a 20-year penalty.

To Arnold Cantor, Maloni’s lawyer, the case is an example of too much official interference in a family matter. Even though the paddling bruised the girl, she didn’t need medical attention, nor did she lose sleep or miss playtime.

“We don’t think that it rises to the level that makes it a crime,” Cantor said.

From Pennsylvania to Colorado, disputes over a parent’s right to spank have generated numerous court cases and contributed to efforts to rewrite state laws.

At issue is the question of when spanking ceases to be an acceptable tool of parental discipline and becomes a form of child abuse punishable by law. The distinction has blurred as more parents come to view spanking as literally too heavy-handed.


“Spanking just breeds a desire for revenge,” said Laura Evans, co-founder of the National Parents Assn., based in Valparaiso, Ind. “It makes children think that the way to solve problems is to use violence to dominate someone.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“It’s unsettling to think that you can put your hand on a child and end up with 20 years in jail,” said Betty Bente, a retired janitor living next door to Maloni in McKees Rocks, a Pittsburgh suburb.

Concerned parents have even set up a web site to debate spanking on the Internet.

Most states have laws that allow “reasonable” corporal punishment and prohibit parents from using “excessive” force.

Delaware and Washington go as far as specifying guidelines that consider a child’s age and size as well as the location and force of the blow. At the other extreme are vaguely worded laws in Illinois and Florida that do not define how much force is necessary for criminal charges.

Pennsylvania permits parents to spank their children as long as they cause no serious injury, mental distress or extreme pain. That sounds clear, but interpretations vary.

District Justice Mary Ann Cercone of McKees Rocks ruled in June that the bruises Maloni inflicted on his stepdaughter with a paint-stirring stick justified charges of assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Cercone ordered Maloni, 37, to stand trial. If convicted, the medical warehouse worker could spend up to two decades in jail and be fined $20,000. The girl, her 6-year-old sister and two younger stepsisters have been temporarily removed from the Maloni home.

Prosecutors have since charged Maloni with two counts each of indecent assault and corruption of minors. Police arrested him June 24, alleging that he sexually abused his two oldest girls. Maloni was released on a $500 bond.

Children and Youth Services, the state’s child-welfare agency, declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality rules. Maloni’s telephone number is unlisted, and no one answered a knock on his door.

Maloni’s case contrasts with one 200 miles away in Lancaster County in February, when a judge dismissed a harassment charge against Kevin Burkey, who paddled his 16-year-old daughter.

“What happened in this case was no Dickensian flogging by a cruel and sadistic parent,” Judge Wilson Bucher said in his opinion. “This was a brief, crisp paddling, pure and simple.”

Generations that grew up during the Great Depression and World War II would view the teenager’s punishment as “woefully inadequate,” the judge wrote.

Michael Uiselt, 45, of Jeannette, Pa., often used a belt, a paddle or his open hand to spank his children when they were young.

“As far as I’m concerned, God put a hand at the bottom of this arm and gave them a soft tush so that if they needed a licking, they got a licking,” Uiselt said.

Uiselt faces charges of simple assault and conspiracy for helping to spank a neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter.

Another Pennsylvania paddling victim spoke of the shame and embarrassment she felt after her mother beat her with a two-foot wooden spoon for disobeying an order not to see a boyfriend.

The 15-year-old girl said she refused to explain her injuries--a broken finger, bandaged knee and bruised forehead--to friends.

“I just said I got hurt,” said the girl, speaking only on condition of anonymity. She said her mother had never struck her before.

Police arrested the girl’s mother and jailed her for a night. Child-welfare workers didn’t press charges against the woman, but they denied her custody of her daughter for seven months. The mother sought counseling and was reunited with the girl in March.

Anthony Krastek, a deputy district attorney for Allegheny County, said hundreds of spanking cases enter the courts each year in Pennsylvania, but he saw no increasing trend. Divergent rulings in similar cases are inevitable, he said.

“It’s not entirely science,” Krastek said. “There’s some interpretation involved.”

Differing interpretations include a man given a six-month, suspended sentence in Franklin, Ind., last November for paddling his 10-year-old son, causing deep bruises.

In Troy, Ohio, a father accused of paddling and bruising his 10-year-old avoided a criminal charge earlier last year by agreeing to be paddled himself by a police officer.

A Virginia-based political group called Of The People has introduced a “parental rights” amendment to the constitutions of 28 states.

Greg Erken, the group’s executive director, said it aims in part to keep government from interfering with parental discipline. Its initiatives have been defeated so far, but Erken hopes to collect enough signatures to offer an amendment to Colorado voters in November.

Such efforts are probably doomed as growing numbers of parents begin to think of even a mild spanking as a bad idea, said Irwin Hyman, a child psychologist at Temple University.

“The American public is more and more coming to accept the connection between hitting kids and the high rates of child abuse,” Hyman said.

But in Lawrence Maloni’s working-class section of McKees Rocks, some people are having a hard time adjusting to what could happen to the neighbor they describe as mild-mannered and eager to help shovel snow or cut firewood.

In the backyard of Maloni’s home is a children’s swing set and a toy oven. A rocking horse and plastic, child-size furniture adorn the back porch.

Tony Skender, who lives next door to Maloni, said he has never heard crying or screaming or seen any signs of child abuse.

Neighbor Betty Bente echoed Skender: “Every time I see him with his kids, he’s very loving.”