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Court: Punishment over daughter's kiss was too harsh

A woman who beat her 7-year-old daughter with a belt, leaving her with lacerations and bruises on parts of her body for at least a week, was not within her parental rights to mete out punishment that went beyond a “customary spanking,” a New Jersey court has ruled.

The court’s decision reverses an earlier one in which another judge found the punishment was not extraordinary or excessive by K.T., the girl’s mother. (Only initials of family members were provided in the court documents.)


 

The girl, S.T., told a family services caseworker that her mother struck her with a belt after learning that she had kissed a boy during kindergarten class. The Division of Youth and Family Services had been alerted to the injuries on the girl by a teacher on June 7, 2011. The agency determined the beating occurred around May 31.

Pictures submitted to the court showed bruises on the girl’s arms, back, buttocks and thighs. She also had lacerations to her buttocks and right thigh, probably caused by the prong of a belt buckle, the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court said in its decision issued Tuesday in favor of the family services agency.

“We hold that K.T.'s acts against her daughter are excessive corporal punishment and support a finding that S.T.'s ‘physical, mental, or emotional condition ... is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of (K.T.) ... to exercise a minimum degree of care,’” Judges Mary Catherine Cuff and Alexander Waugh said in their decision.

In a recorded interview, K.T. said she struck her daughter with a belt for "a couple of minutes" because she had been sitting on a boy's lap and had been disruptive in school. K.T. said she only meant to strike her daughter’s buttocks, but the girl’s squirming around led to the other bruises. She also said she had used a belt to discipline her daughter in the past, according to the judges’ decision.

When asked if she knew what she did was wrong, she replied, "No, because that's pretty much how I was raised," the court documents said.

K.T., citing a prior New Jersey court case, said her actions fell within her constitutional right to use this type of punishment, and the record was void of “any objective evidence” that she had, in spanking her child, “recklessly created a risk of serious injury to S.T.”

The court said the law didn’t prohibit corporal punishment, and that a parent could inflict reasonable moderate correction, but that was not the case here.

“Multiple strikes with a belt to a seven-year-old child, which left bruises and marks all over the child's body that were visible seven days after the incident, is hardly the occasional discipline of a wayward or incorrigible teenager condoned by the Court” in an earlier case, the judges said. “Neither the school nor K.T. asserts S.T. exhibited other behavioral problems or was generally a difficult child. The punishment inflicted by K.T. is hardly a ‘customary’ spanking.”

The earlier trial judge, identified as Union County Superior Court Judge James Hely by the New Jersey Law Journal, had granted physical custody to the girl’s father, M.H., and joint legal custody to both parents. It’s not clear if the custody arrangements have changed with the appellate court’s decision. The family services agency said confidentiality laws prohibited it from commenting.

K.T.'s lawyer, Justin Walker of Piekarsky & Associates, told the law journal that she "may have been angry but I don't believe (her actions) crossed into the realm of abuse."

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