A provincial court judge has jumped into the touchy and often controversial issue of parental rights and corporal punishment.
Judge Saul Nosanchuk ruled Tuesday that a 40-year-old Leamington mother of five stepped over the line when she spanked her four-year-old son with a wooden stick for not doing his math homework.
He found Sara Klassen guilty of assault, but gave her a conditional discharge which means she won't have a criminal record if she abides by the terms of her probation.
"This is a difficult case because you are parent. But there are parents who believe spare the rod and spoil the child," Nosanchuk said. "That's not what the laws of Canada say."
The incident occurred Sept. 29, 1999 and came to light when an older daughter, fed up with the history of corporeal punishment in her family, complained to the Salvation Army who in turn notified the Windsor-Essex County Children's Aid Society and the police. The daughter, 17, now lives outside the family home.
Assistant Crown attorney Lloyd Dean said Nosanchuk's ruling is significant because judges frequently maintain a hands-off policy when dealing with parents who physically discipline their children.
Under the guidelines set out in the Criminal Code, physical punishment by a parent is legal if the punishment meted out is corrective and reasonable. The code does not, however, define what is reasonable.
Dean said Nosanchuk has helped expand the definition by ruling on a case where the punishment administered was clearly not abusive. The boy, who was being home-schooled by his mother and wanted to go out and play, did not require hospitalization and the marks left by the foot-long, inch-wide stick were not long-lasting.
Nosanchuk's interpretation of the Criminal Code also placed heavy weight on the age of the child.
"Some defence lawyers would argue (the ruling) doesn't matter, but I see it a little differently because it's not a straight, clear cut case of abuse," Dean said.
Bill Bevan, executive director of the Windsor-Essex County Children's Aid Society, said the judge's ruling should be applauded. He said Nosanchuk has helped flesh out the legal definition of what is reasonable punishment.
"What's lacking in the Criminal Code is a clear definition of what is meant by reasonable force," he said.
Despite the finding of guilt, Nosanchuk remained convinced Klassen was a "devoted, loving" mother. "You are an intelligent person....You may have learned certain things (about child-rearing) from your mother, but there are more effective ways of doing things," he said.
Bevan said parents need to rethink the whole issue of physical punishment.
"As a children's aid society we too often see under the guise of a parent trying to correct a child's behaviour ... children being hurt," he said.
Klassen was placed under probation for nine months. She must report regularly to a probation officer, co-operate with children's aid workers monitoring her three younger children and take counselling if required.
Read more about the ebb and flow of the Canadian children's rights campaign at nospank.net/ca.htm.