Parents and guardians in Virginia are allowed to physically discipline misbehaving children in their care, and authorities are guided by case law, rather than statutory law, in determining what forms of force are deemed unacceptable.
Virginia has no statutory provisions regulating corporal punishment of minor children.
“It’s all essentially driven by case law,” said Assistant Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney B.J. McGee, a veteran prosecutor who handles domestic-related criminal cases.
“Corporal punishment is basically allowed in the home, but it has to be reasonably related to punishment,” McGee said. “There’s no bright-line test or statute on it. It’s all a case-by-case determination.”
McGee said some judges in Virginia may believe that what NFL star running back Adrian Peterson did in disciplining his 4-year-old child with a wooden switch acceptable, “but I think the majority of the judges ... would hold that it would be inappropriate.”
McGee said he prosecuted a similar case some years ago that involved a grandfather who struck a misbehaving grandchild with a switch fashioned from a tree limb in the backyard. A judge found there was sufficient evidence for a conviction.
“My hard-and-fast rule is that if it leaves a bruise or a mark that is more than a day or two in healing, that that goes as abuse as opposed to punishment,” the prosecutor said.
“But I’m probably in the minority in that in the state. It’s a very personal matter even amongst prosecutors — what is punishment and what is abuse.”
A 1969 Virginia Supreme Court decision is the legal standard by which most corporal punishment cases in Virginia are judged. In that case, the high court upheld a lower court’s conviction of a Harrisonburg man who spanked his 5-year-old foster son to the degree it caused serious bruising and blood marks on the child’s buttocks, as well as marks and welts on the back of both legs.
“The undisputed evidence as to the wounds and bruises on the body of this child showed that he had been cruelly and brutally beaten,” the court said.
The court added that while parents or guardians “may administer such reasonable and timely punishment as be necessary to correct faults in a growing child, the right cannot be used a cloak for the exercise of uncontrolled passion, and that such person may be criminally liable for assault and battery if he inflicts corporal punishment which exceeds the bounds of due moderation.”
In determining whether such punishment is moderate or excessive, the court said a judge or a jury should examine the attending circumstances, including “the age, size and conduct of the child, the nature of the misconduct and the kind of marks or wounds inflicted on the body of the child.”
“That is the black-letter law in Virginia,” McGee said. “”The way I explain it, is that you got to kind of sit down and explain (to a child) that this is punishment. You can’t do it off the cuff, even though I think a lot of judges would disagree with me. It has to be thought out as punishment. So there has to be — for lack of a better term — due process.”