In Gonzalez v. Santa Clara County DSS 223 Cal.App.4th 72 (1-21-14) (DCA 6), on April 23, 2014, the California Supreme Court let stand the appeals court ruling that Mother’s spanking child with a wooden spoon is not reportable child abuse under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (Pen. Code §11164 through Pen. Code §11174.3 (CANRA/Act)) if it constituted the reasonable imposition of discipline protected by the parental disciplinary privilege.
In the Gonzalez case the parents were very concerned about 12-yr.-old daughter’s lying, doing badly in school, skipping classes, and going with the wrong crowd. Normal methods of discipline had failed. Family members declared unanimously that spankings were rare in the family, had only been given for misbehavior, never given in the heat of anger, and were almost always given by father with an open hand. Father was coming home late the day of the incident at issue and told mother she should discipline daughter with a wooden spoon because of her hand condition. Per mother, she gave daughter five or six spanks on the bottom, one for each task not done and for making excuses; daughter was fully clothed and not crying or screaming during the spanking. Spanking did produce visible bruises.
Next day, daughter told some friends, one of whom “tricked” her into reporting it to a school employee, who filled out a child abuse form. Dept. of Social Services (DSS) found social worker’s report “substantiated,” and submitted it to the state Dept. of Justice for inclusion in the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI) under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (Pen. Code §11164 through Pen. Code §11174.3 (CANRA/Act)). Mother lost admin. appeal and her petition for administrative mandamus was denied.
On appeal to Court of Appeal, she contended that neither the DSS nor Superior Court gave any weight to the right of a parent to impose reasonable discipline on his or her child. Court of Appeal agreed, also sustaining her contention that the hearing officer committed prejudicial abuse of discretion by refusing to permit daughter to testify, citing the rationale-“which flew in the face of the only evidence before him”-that she would be traumatized by the experience. Court reversed with directions for Superior Court to order DSS to either conduct a new hearing or set aside its finding that the report was “substantiated” and to inform the DOJ that the report was “unfounded.”
HELD: Mother’s spanking C with a wooden spoon is not reportable child abuse under CANRA if it constituted the reasonable imposition of discipline protected by the parental disciplinary privilege.
Parental Disciplinary Privilege
“[P]arents are privileged to ‘administer reasonable punishment with impunity,’ but the parent who ‘exceeds that limit . . . commits a battery and is civilly liable for the consequences.’ (Gillett v. Gillett (1959) 168 Cal.App.2d 102, 104; see 5 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts §28, pp. 88-91; see Rest.2d Torts, §§147-155.)” (Gonzalez v. Santa Clara Dept. of Social Services, supra, 223 Cal.App.4th at p. 86.)
Mother had specifically invoked the privilege at the admin. hearing and in the trial ct. Neither acknowledged the entitlement and neither gave any consideration to the question whether the spanking here fell within the zone of reasonable discipline. Court of Appeal discussed the privilege and CANRA in depth and concluded “the parental privilege to impose reasonable physical discipline upon a child must be incorporated into CANRA’s definitions of what constitutes ‘”willful harming or injuring of a child”‘ (Pen. Code §11165.3) and ‘”unlawful corporal punishment or injury”‘ (Pen. Code §11165.4). It follows that Mother’s conduct here was not reportable child abuse if it constituted the reasonable imposition of discipline.” (Id. at p. 90.)
Trial ct. erred in refusing to consider whether mother’s conduct constituted reasonable parental discipline. Instead its SOD “erected a straw man in the form of a ‘”good intentions” exception’ which ‘the legislature, in its wisdom, has elected not to include.'” (Id. at p. 90.) Court of Appeal agreed that there is no “good intentions” defense, as such, to a charge of unlawful discipline. However, did mother’s conduct fall within the privilege of a parent to impose reasonable discipline on his or her child.
“[A] genuine disciplinary intention can furnish a bar to a finding of child abuse under CANRA when the circumstances present a reasonable occasion for discipline and the discipline imposed is reasonable in kind and measure.” (Id. at p. 91.)
To be held substantiated over mother’s privilege challenge, report “must be upon the basis of a reasoned finding, supported by substantial evidence, that the spanking did not constitute reasonable discipline.” (Id. at p. 95.) Court returned matter to DSS with instructions to hold a new hearing or to modify its decision to find the report unfounded and so notify DOJ to expunge report from CACI.