When is Spanking Your Child Considered Criminal in Northern Virginia?

Over the past several years, Abrenio Law has seen an increase in child-abuse charges filed against parents for Child Spanking. In many instances, charges arise from allege spanking that only years earlier would have seemed clearly within the realm of legal behavior.  For you parents, you need to be aware that Virginia’s Child Spanking Laws are complex.

Child Spanking is permitted in Virginia, to a certain extent.

To be clear, Virginia allows for, “Corporal Punishment.” That means that spanking and other forms of physical punishment is permitted. However, it is limited to “reasonable” physical punishment in “due moderation.” What exactly reasonable and due moderation is not so clear. 

Harbough and Woodson Provide Guidance on When Spanking is Criminal. 

A seminal case in Virginia regarding child spanking is Harbough v. Comm, 209 Va. 695 (1969).  In Harbough, the victim was a five-year-old child who was observed by school staff to have difficulty walking, and upon examination, his buttocks was badly bruised with blood marks and seepage.  He also had purple marks and welts on his legs and ended up being admitted to the hospital. The Court in Harbough found that the child’s injuries were due to the defendant punishing the child for what he felt was inappropriate behavior.  In convicting the defendant, the Court also found that defendant simply went too far.   

To reach this conclusion, the Court considered factors such as bruising/markings left on the child, what steps of punishment were taken before the physical punishment, the circumstances surrounding the actual punishment, such as how many physical strikes were employed, and other circumstances. 

To provide more guidance, on May 3, 2022, the Virginia Court of Appeals reversed an assault conviction based upon child spanking in Woodson v. Commonwealth, 74 Va. App. 685 (2022).  There, mom discovered that her twin children lied to her about texting friends without her permission.  As punishment, she spanked her twins with the soft end of a belt.  As a result of the spanking, the son sustained a single bruise on his thigh and he was “sore” on his back.  The daughter sustained a single bruise on her back and some bruises on her thigh.  Further, there was no evidence that the mom carried out this punishment in a state of anger or rage or that it was done in a degrading way.

In reversing the mom’s conviction, the Court found that the injuries inflicted upon the children did not involve serious physical injury, but instead dealt with transient pain and minor, temporary marks.  Further, nothing about the circumstances of the discipline demonstrated that the twins were ever at a serious risk of harm.  

Virginia’s Model Jury Instructions also provide guidance.

When a case is tried before a jury, the Court presents the jury with “jury instructions” to tell them what the actual law is.  To create instructions for any particular case, the Court and attorneys employ, ” Model Jury Instructions,” which are standard language instructions that the parties can modify to suit the needs of each case.  The Model Jury Instruction for child spanking states:   

Parents may administer such reasonable and timely punishment as may be necessary to correct faults in a growing child. However, the right cannot be used as a cloak for the exercise of uncontrolled passion. A person may be criminally liable for assault and battery if he inflicts corporal punishment which exceeds the bounds of due moderation. In determining whether punishment is moderate or excessive, the jury should consider the attending circumstances, considering the age, size and conduct of the child, the nature of the misconduct, and the kinds of marks or wounds inflicted on the body of the child. 

Of course, this instruction is vague too.  Given that, it’s clear that there is simply no bright line rule to determine what exactly is going too far in any given case.

As defense counsel, while I understand that parenting methods differ, I’d recommend that parents be very careful if they choose to spank their child.  Because if you’re found to have gone too far, you can easily find your way into court.

Have you been Criminally Charged in Northern Virginia for Spanking?

James Abrenio has been represent parents charged with spanking (typically charged as Domestic Assault) for over a decade.  If you’ve been charged in Northern Virginia, give him a call to discuss your case. To schedule your Consultation with James, call us at 703.570.4180. You can also learn more about James by clicking here.